Anacostia River's Dirty Little Secret
Major Water Pollution Begins in Md., Not D.C.
By Nurith C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2004; Page B01
The rebirth of the Bladensburg Waterfront Park should be a community success story.
Neglected for years, the park was refurbished by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 2000 and quickly became a focal point of life along the Anacostia River. During peak season, it draws hundreds of people a day to fish off its pier, picnic in its riverbank pavilion and rent canoes and kayaks from its boathouse.
But the renaissance ends at the river's edge. Every weekday during the boating season, the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society tests the water quality near the Prince George's County park and at the 11th Street Bridge, four miles downstream in the District. Two sites on the Potomac River are tested as well.
In 2002, the most recent year for which results are available, the water quality at Bladensburg was by far the worst, found unsafe for swimming on 86 of 100 days, compared with 36 days at the 11th Street Bridge and even less often at the Potomac sites.
While District officials prepare to spend billions cleaning up the city's segment of the Anacostia and transforming the waterfront into a gleaming expanse of apartments, shops and parks, many environmentalists worry that upstream in Prince George's County, the river is just as foul, if not more so. Moreover, they say Maryland officials are lagging in their efforts to revive the river and its shoreline.
"I think there's this perception that the Anacostia is only in D.C. But about 80 percent of the river and its tributaries are in Maryland, and it's unacceptable to have a river full of bacteria running through those communities," said James F. Connolly, the watershed society's executive director.
Some District officials are also concerned that the city's redevelopment plan will fail without Maryland's active cooperation.
"We are talking about investing literally billions of dollars to clean up the river," said Uwe Brandes, project manager of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative in the D.C. Office of Planning. "But unless Maryland starts up a really significant cleanup effort, at the end of the day, the citizens of our city will still have to live alongside a contaminated river."
Maryland officials said they are making every effort to solve the problem. "We do recognize that the Anacostia is a major area where we need to do work, and this agency has spent several millions of dollars over the years assisting local jurisdictions with that work," said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment.
One thing all involved agree on is that much of the pollution in the Anacostia originates in Maryland. A recent study commissioned by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, or WASA, estimated that Maryland is the source of 62 percent of the organic waste in the river -- including sewage, discarded food and engine oil -- much of which is swept into the river by storm water running off paved surfaces.
The District's antiquated sewer system remains a major source of pollution, because the District, unlike the Maryland suburbs, uses the same pipes for sewage and storm water. During heavy rains, the overflow, including sewage, spills into the river.
WASA has developed a $1.35 billion engineering plan to address the problem in the wake of legal action by the Environmental Protection Agency and several environmental groups, lawsuits that are pending. Even so, according to the WASA study, 26 percent of the human and animal waste bacteria in the Anacostia are from Maryland.
Such statistics come as no surprise to users of Bladensburg Waterfront Park, about a mile north of the District border.
"The river definitely looks polluted," said Puja Gupta, president of the University of Maryland women's crew team -- one of four rowing squads based at the Bladensburg park. "The water is very brown, and there's usually a lot of scum on top. In the mornings after we row, there's all this crud on the boats and the girls. And the trash -- you name it, it's in there."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
James F. Connolly of the Anacostia Watershed Society says the river's problems aren't confined to the District.
(Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
Anacostia River Basin
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Tentative Deal on Swap for SW Waterfront (The Washington Post, May 20, 2004)
Waterfront Plan Encounters Flak (The Washington Post, Feb 19, 2004)
Neighborhoods Have Big Role In Anacostia Waterfront Plan (The Washington Post, Jan 19, 2004)
City to Unveil Ambitious Plan To Renew Anacostia Waterfront (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2003)
New Anacostia Plan Roils Political Waters (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2003)
D.C. Backs Concept For SW Waterfront (The Washington Post, Oct 8, 2003)
All Around the Hill, a New Era (The Washington Post, Oct 2, 2003)
18 Years and Still No Park (The Washington Post, Mar 31, 2002)