The Anacostia River, which could be the backdrop for two D.C. stadiums and a redeveloped waterfront, remains in wretched shape because of runoff from sewage pipes and urban streets, according to a report issued yesterday.
The first ever "State of the Anacostia River" report gives the waterway a score of just 17 out of 100, with 100 representing its condition before people began to affect it. The report was published by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which for several years has compiled similar surveys of the health of the bay.
Anacostia advocates said yesterday that they hoped the report would move the Anacostia out of the shadow of the capital city's other river, the Potomac. That river was once so polluted that President Lyndon B. Johnson pronounced it a "national disgrace" in the 1960s, but it has improved substantially in recent years.
In contrast, the Anacostia remains so polluted by raw sewage that the river often stinks, scientists who study the river say.
Additionally, car exhaust and oily runoff from streets and parking lots have been blamed for high rates of cancer in fish. More than half of the Anacostia's brown bullhead catfish have tumors, according to a recent study.
"It's got to get better," said William C. Baker, president of the bay foundation. "If the river that runs through the nation's capital continues to be as polluted as it is, it's a tragedy."
Attention has been shifting to the Anacostia in recent years, as city planners have looked to redevelop neglected areas along its banks. The best-known projects are a plan to build neighborhoods and public amenities on the old D.C. General Hospital campus and a $400 million-plus proposal for a baseball park just off South Capitol Street.
In the short term, the river's polluted state hasn't hampered the rise of waterfront real estate values, said Uwe Brandes, who oversees Anacostia waterfront development for the city.
But Brandes said it eventually will pose a problem.
"Over the long term, you can't create the quality of life necessary if . . . the water-quality issues of the river are not addressed," he said.
One of the main problems the report highlights is the District's antiquated sewage system, which dumps raw waste into the Anacostia during heavy rainstorms, totaling about 80 times a year.
As a result, the report says, high levels of fecal coliform have made the river unhealthy for swimming. An upgrade to the system, which would involve the construction of a giant underground storage tank to store runoff until a storm subsides, has been proposed but not approved, Brandes said.
He said it was unlikely that a goal for the Anacostia that the bay foundation set in yesterday's report would be reached: that people could swim in the river and eat its fish by 2020.
"That would require extreme amounts of money to be available immediately," he said.
If the stench from the river isn't addressed, it could make for uncomfortable evenings at a waterfront baseball park, environmentalists said yesterday.
And they said to forget any notions of replicating San Francisco's SBC Park, where kayakers wait in a cove off San Francisco Bay for home runs to leave the stadium and splash down.
"It wouldn't be a practice I would advocate" on the Anacostia, said Robert Boone, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society.