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Undoing the Damage To Sacred Banks

Combined with other pollutants, including industrial wastes and fertilizer chemicals, fecal bacteria has led to the river's health rating of 17 out of a possible 100, according to "The Anacostia River: a Health Index," to be released Monday.

The condition of the river has improved in recent years because of volunteer efforts by environmental groups and such nonprofit organizations as Earth Conservation Corps, which hires young people from Anacostia neighborhoods to clean up debris, build river walks and plant trees, shrubs and aquatic vegetation.

Some animals still carve out homes on the Anacostia River, whose eight-mile stretch between Fort McNair and Bladensburg once was one of the richest wetlands areas in the world. (Photos Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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Individual congregations have been involved in cleanup efforts, and the environmental committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has made the Anacostia a priority, said Siglin, who serves on the panel. But no interfaith effort has been made on the level of that envisioned for the Religious Partnership for the Anacostia -- one that hopes to enlist houses of worship throughout the river's watershed area, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, he said.

About 150 people of different faiths attended the September meeting at Matthews Memorial. Speakers included the Rev. Susan Newman, senior advisor for religious affairs to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams; Rabbi Warren Stone of Temple Emanuel in Bethesda; Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif, of Majidush-Shura in Southeast; and the Rev. John Bryson Chane, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

"The challenge before us is to reconnect the secular and utilitarian with the sacred," Chane said in his talk, "Searching for a Theology of Ecology."

"This is essential if we are to reclaim our role as God's stewards," the bishop said. "With this reclamation must come the realization that there is no such thing as a morally neutral choice when it comes to making decisions about how we treat the environment and its creatures. There are only good and bad choices. Not making a choice is in fact making a choice to do nothing."

Doing something about the Anacostia means starting with practical actions to stop the flow of sewage into the river, states a brochure available through the coalition's Web site, www.religiouspartnership.org. "Restorative Landscaping: Real Ways to Help Save the Anacostia" encourages homeowners, businesses, government offices and houses of worship throughout the Anacostia River watershed -- 176 square miles, 85 percent of which is in Maryland -- to reduce the amount of rainwater going into storm drains.

Suggestions include directing downspouts so water flows to a "buffer garden" with shrubs and other plants; capturing rainwater in barrels and using it to water flowers; creating parking areas with gravel or porous masonry blocks; and creating roof gardens consisting of layers of soil, drainage material and succulent plants on a waterproof membrane.

On a policy level, the partnership will ask members to support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's efforts to persuade Congress to replace the city's antiquated sewage system. Congress, which has oversight of the District, has allocated $85 million to begin the improvements, which ultimately could cost $2 billion, Siglin said.

David Smith, 30, who grew up near the Anacostia and who is program director for Earth Conservation Corps, said it's important to "understand the bigger picture" of what pollutes the Anacostia while taking such small steps as improving access for boaters and replanting vegetation on river banks and in the water.

As the Anacostia's official "riverkeeper," Smith keeps another universal view in mind as he regularly drives his motorized skiff up and down the river to check on the corps's restoration efforts, including more than a dozen eagles the group released on the river that have created nests.

Every time he goes on the river, "I can feel the presence of God," said Smith, who attends St. John's Baptist Church in Marshall Heights. Despite the pollution, despite human efforts to control the water flow, the river refuses to be defeated and somehow finds a way to support some wildlife and vegetation.

"That's a testament to just how powerful God is in creation," he said.

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