The history of the Anacostia River

May 2, 2012

The Anacostia River might be small — 8.5 miles — but don’t be fooled by  its size. Its watershed, which stretches 176 miles across portions of the  District and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, is the most developed area within the Potomac’s watershed, and arguably the most important. “The Anacostia watershed is extremely populated, developed and polluted,” said Ed Merrifield, head of the Potomac Riverkeeper group, “and because of its size, those things are highly concentrated. If you step back and look at the region’s water as a whole, the Anacostia is by far the most important chunk.”

HISTORY

Long before the Anacostia River was nicknamed “the forgotten river,” the Nacotchtank Indians called it “anaquash,” which means “village trading center.” Historians estimate that Native Americans lived on the river for 10,000 years.

In the early 1600s, English settlers began to clear forests in the watershed to grow tobacco and use the river as a shipping channel. Gradually, toxic silt began to build on the river’s bottom. By the mid-1800s, ships had trouble making it to the port at Bladensburg. The river, no longer useful for business, was abandoned.

Over the next century, the District’s population grew tenfold, reaching 800,000 in 1950, which covered 25 percent of the Anacostia watershed with impervious surfaces. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that less than 10 percent of the area’s original forests and wetlands remain.

But Mike Bolinder, head of the Anacostia Riverkeeper group, said that some recent developments have been welcomed by environmentalists, who hope for the birth of a green community along the riverfront.


(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

“Nationals stadium was probably the first time in history that environmentalists and developers were on the same side,” he said. “Environmentalists knew that development would bring money to clean up the area, and developers knew that in order to get permits, they had to go green.”

During this year’s Earth Day cleanups, the parking lot at RFK Stadium was decorated with banners bearing the new slogan, “Rediscover your Anacostia.”

“It really all comes down to people,” said Brent Bolin, the society’s director of advocacy. “You can do a hundred tests and give a hundred tours, but where there’s real estate, there’s progress.”

BIGGEST ISSUES

Litter: Garbage has plagued the river for decades. More than 20,000 tons of trash pollute the river each year.

Location: Bolinder said the Anacostia River is surrounded by lower-income communities that have not had an opportunity to advocate for themselves. “We want to inspire people who live in these communities to take action,” he said.

Stormwater runoff: The Anacostia’s issues with stormwater runoff are closely tied to the region’s population growth. “More people means more pavement,” Bolin said. “Pavement is a superhighway for runoff.”

CLEANUP EFFORTS

Bag tax: Authorities say the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act, also known as the “bag tax,” has reduced the river’s most common form of litter by about 75 percent since it was enacted two years ago. The fees also paid for trash traps on the river. One year after the fee was enacted, the District reported reductions in the use of paper and plastic bags from 22.5 million to 3.2 million. Montgomery County adopted the fee in January.

Talking trash: Trash Free Schools, a litter reduction initiative by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, teaches students about recycling programs and waste management. Of the eight schools participating in the District and Prince George’s County, six are within walking distance of the Anacostia River.

Low-impact development: Julie Lawson, of the Anacostia Watershed Society, said Nationals park set the bar for low-impact development with green roofs and a runoff control system. “It manages rainfall in a very sophisticated way,” she said.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Install a rain barrel. Rain barrels keep stormwater from sweeping debris and chemicals into drains, and they provide clean water for tasks such as gardening. If used regularly, they can also reduce water bills. D.C. Greenworks (www.dcgreenworks.org) offers rebates for rain barrels.

Dig a rain garden. Rain gardens are designed to soak up runoff. RiverSmart Homes, a program run by the District Department of the Environment, will reimburse homeowners $1.25 for every impervious square foot treated. Details are at ddoe.dc.gov/riversmarthomes.

Visit the Anacostia. The Earth Conservation Corps (202-479-4505, Ext. 101) and Bladensburg Waterfront Park (www.pgparks.com) offer boat tours of the river, and the Anacostia Watershed Society holds cleanups, paddle boating clinics and native plant walks (www.anacostiaws.org).

Weird things found in the Anacostia

• Car parts such as tires, motors and a transmission.

• Toilets, mattresses, tents, strollers and refrigerators.

• Lawn mower motors, grills and three deer carcasses.

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