CITYSCAPE: THE OTHER RIVER : The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative
Coming Clean About the Future
With Recreation Central to Plans, Pollution Curbs Can't Be Swept Aside
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page C01
Second in a five-part series
Rowers who walk the short, narrow pathway to the Anacostia Community Boathouse, passing by the chain-link compound of the D.C. Street and Alley Cleaning Division, don't even see the sign anymore. But a first-time visitor can't help taking notice.
"WARNING," the sign says. "Combined Sewer Overflow Discharge Point. Pollution May Occur During Rainfalls."
This says a lot about the challenges facing the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, the city's long-term plan to transform our neglected "other river" into a source of vitality and pride.
On the one hand, the Anacostia's waters at times are a slow-moving cesspool. Regularly, water quality sets off pollution alerts from environmental organizations. The D.C. Health Department warns against swimming in the river or eating its fish.
On the other hand, there is the city's ambition to make the Anacostia "the region's major destination for aquatic recreation." And then there are the intrepid rowers and others -- including ospreys who make their homes on abandoned river pilings -- who refuse to wait for any official plan.
"We've tested the water, and it's not great, but it isn't so bad that creatures can't live here," says John Dillow, an instructor in the Living Classrooms program, which operates out of the Earth Conservation Corps outpost on the river near the South Capitol Street Bridge.
"We're doing the things they say they want to do," says Dylan Cors, president of the four-year-old Anacostia Boathouse Association. "We're bringing people to the water, we're integrating with the neighborhoods with our outreach programs."
It's as if the Anacostia River today is stalled between a disreputable past and a rosy future. You can see much evidence of the one, but it isn't hard to imagine the other.
On the western edge of the river, for instance, just north of the boathouse (at 1115 O St. SE), is a stretch of five marinas for sailboats and motorboats. The area has a no-man's-land look to it, and the marine facilities are hidden and hard to get to.
Yet it wouldn't take much to open up this woebegone quarter, add a few top-flight boating operations and thereby remold it into "boathouse row" -- which is just what the Anacostia plan proposes.
Likewise, it's not so difficult to appreciate the practicality of the plan's vision of public boat landings, canoe tie-ups and boat launches dotting both sides of the river. These would start at Poplar Point on the eastern edge near the South Capitol Street Bridge and continue on to the river's more bucolic northern reaches inside the District, close by the National Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
The more you get to thinking this way, the more you realize that the Anacostia already has a lot going for it.
It has those wilderness-like upper reaches with pristine wetlands -- patiently being expanded by the Army Corps of Engineers (in concert with the D.C. Health Department and the National Park Service). Kenilworth Park is nearby, with its ballfields and open green spaces. Kingman Island, created with dredged river mud three-quarters of a century ago, is a quiet retreat alongside restored tidewater marshes.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company