Coming Clean About the Future
And then, of course, there is Anacostia Park, stretching more than three miles along the eastern side of the river, with meadows, playing fields, an enclosed public swimming pool, a roller-skating pavilion, a boat launch and some splendid views back to the capital's monuments.
On a sunny weekend day, you'll find basketball players, Frisbee flingers, bicyclists, anglers and nature lovers taking advantage of the athletic facilities and open air. Clearly, these are splendid places, enviable urban resources.
But that isn't to say they are not in great need of improvement. The recreation facilities are worn down or worn out. Maintenance is minimal. Environmental standards for the most part have been abysmal. The monotonous river edge is off-putting. Connections to nearby neighborhoods are few and far between.
Seen in this perspective, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is simply a device to channel much-needed, long-overdue benefits.
Admittedly, things get more difficult when you try to envision the great public parks proposed along the western waterfronts at South Capitol Street, New Jersey and Massachusetts avenues SE on the river's western side, and, on the eastern edge, at Poplar Point. The difficulty derives from the fact that, at each of these places, current conditions are uniformly awful.
If you want to see stupendous examples of how not to treat an urban riverside, visit each of these places. Or give it a good try. Not only are they depressing and depopulated, but they also form significant barriers to the riverside. Washington is fortunate to have miles and miles of green, protected waterfront on both of its rivers, but when it came to these particular Anacostia banks, the city turned its back.
Then again, when things are so bad, they just have to get better, don't they? The genius of the city's plan is that it allows us, in these particular places, to look forward to something we don't have except in little bits and pieces: truly urbanized waterfront destinations where lots of people will congregate to enjoy the water however they please.
Ah, the water. The very thought of it brings us back to that warning sign next to the boathouse. It calls attention to the fact that in 21st-century Washington, a third of the city is still making do with a 133-year-old piping system that combines raw sewage with storm water during heavy or long rains. The Anacostia receives the bulk of this messy stuff -- about 3 billion gallons in a typical year.
There have been lawsuits, naturally, and plans to eliminate the problem. In partial response to suits filed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund and others, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has proposed steps to cut overflows by 40 percent within five years, at a cost of about $180 million.
But the pace seems definitively poky. A longer-term plan aims to cut the number of annual "CSO events" (the initials stand for "combined sewer overflow"), when sewage mixes with storm water, from an average of 80 to two. Yet the starting and ending dates of this elaborate project, involving the construction of underground water storage tunnels, have not been settled. Neither has the matter of who will pay the more than $1 billion bill. (The feds certainly ought to ante up their fair share.)
The District's sewage overflows, however, are only one of the Anacostia's problems. The river also suffers from Maryland's sewage. Because 83 percent of its 174-square-mile watershed lies in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, this can be quite a problem. There are no official CSO outfalls in either of the two counties, but sewage definitely is escaping somehow, through broken pipes or illegal hookups or whatever.
And lots of it. Fecal coliform bacteria counts taken by the Anacostia Watershed Society often show higher amounts at the Bladensburg measuring point than anywhere in the District. So it's clear that when it comes to depositing sewage in the wrong places, both the District and Maryland have to clean up their acts.
Nor is sewage necessarily the river's biggest pollution problem. More than 70,000 tons of sediment, trash and toxics are dumped into the river every year, according to Thomas Arrasmith, the volunteer chairman of the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee. The main culprit here is storm water runoff -- the noisome stuff that comes when rain falls on roads and parking lots and all the other impervious surfaces we build, covering over the natural systems that normally would absorb and filter water on its way to the river. All of these pollution problems are exacerbated by the river's heavy sedimentation and its slow-moving waters.
Big plans to do something about runoff preceded the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. An Anacostia Watershed Restoration Agreement was entered into in 1987 by all of the major jurisdictions and government agencies with some control over the rivers. There have been other collaborative enterprises, such as the Anacostia Watershed Toxics Alliance, also made up of federal, state and local agencies.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Near the South Capitol Street Bridge, a heron's repose is marred by trash gathered around an old dock.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)