Anacostia River shows decades-long failure to improve water quality, ecosystem

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; HE01

Take a walk, or take a canoe, down the Anacostia River. Here -- in the story of one smelly, trashy and sporadically beautiful stream -- is the unfinished business of the American environmental movement, 40 years after the first Earth Day.

This winter, a two-day journey along the Anacostia revealed white-tailed deer and mud-stuck tires along the river's upstream tributaries. On the viscous river itself, there were graceful cormorants . . . and condoms floating like tiny submarines.

The Anacostia provides plenty of evidence of what has been solved in the American environment. The kinds of pollutants that are most obvious and simple to fix -- the ones that stink or that flow out of easy-to-spot pipes -- have been tackled, at least somewhat.

But there is so much left to fix.

The Anacostia's problems grow every time it rains, since the region's old infrastructure loads up rainwater with dirt, oil and pollutants before it flows into the river.

Now, Washington area officials are making a renewed push to clean up the Anacostia; the first sign is the District's new five-cent fee on plastic bags. But these efforts carry a depressing caveat: Officials say they might spend $3 billion and still not make the river safe for fishing and swimming anytime soon.

So the region faces a question replicated across the country: At a place this polluted, how bad should be good enough?

Whatever that is, it isn't here yet, said James Connolly, an environmentalist who until recently was head of the Anacostia Watershed Society. For now, he said, this is the river's good news:

"It looks more like water now," Connolly said. Thanks to efforts in the past decade to limit raw-sewage dumps into the river, he said, the Anacostia's water is less thick with pollution-fueled algae. "There's less toilet in your water."

Scene: Sandy Spring

The most notorious river in greater Washington has its beginning -- or one of them -- in a pool of clear water in a farm field in northern Montgomery County. Groundwater bubbles to the surface here: the Sandy Spring.

"So there it is. The mighty Anacostia," said Connolly, 42, looking down at the birdbath-size pool. "Go get a canoe!"

As Connolly, two Watershed Society staffers and two journalists watched, water flowed out of the pool, forming a mini-creek too tiny to burble. From there, it ran away through a patch of woods. Downstream, fed by storm sewers and other rivulets from other creeks, the stream would become big enough to have a name: Northwest Branch.

This little party of people was going the same way -- walking the upper reaches of the Anacostia watershed, along streams too shallow for a boat. Before the group left, though, somebody spotted movement in the spring-fed pool.

A fish? An eel? A salamander.

"That's a good sign," Connolly said. "Salamanders need very clean water."

The big, bad picture

But, of course, the water doesn't stay that way.

In the District, 15 miles downstream, the Anacostia is burdened by tons of floating trash, millions of gallons of raw sewage, and deposits of toxic chemicals.

The main body of the Anacostia makes the region's other big environmental worry, Chesapeake Bay, look healthy by comparison.

The bay's ecosystem still functions, despite shifting "dead zones." The Anacostia is closer to a dead river: To pick one example, more than half of its brown bullhead catfish have tumors on their livers, from a life rooting in chemical-laden sediment.

The Anacostia does share one thing with the bay, however. Both have defied government promises to save them.

In 2001, for instance, leaders from the District, Maryland, and Prince George's and Montgomery counties signed an agreement setting targets for the Anacostia cleanup, to be achieved by 2010.

After that, governments did make some improvements. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, whose old pipes dump raw sewage into the river during heavy rains, made changes that cut these discharges by 40 percent.

But the governments still failed their own test.

Among 25 targets for producing cleaner water, a healthier watershed and more aquatic life, just three have been achieved or are likely to be achieved soon, according to officials.

One major problem, local officials said in interviews, was a failure to tackle an odd-sounding polluter: rain.

The issue in the Anacostia's watershed -- which is mostly in Prince George's and Montgomery -- isn't that it rains, but where the rain goes after it falls. Much of it hits sidewalks and rooftops and parking lots, then flows down to storm sewers, carrying bottles, bags, road oil and pet waste into the river.

The real answer to this, officials said, would be to corral the water before it goes into storm drains, catching it in ponds or rain gardens or green roofs and letting it sink into the ground gradually.

Thousands of fixes, at thousands of places.

In the past, the Anacostia cleanup effort didn't have anywhere near the money or the ambition required to do this, officials involved in it say.

"My personal belief . . . is that this has clearly been a flaw from the beginning, and certainly for the last decade it has been well-known," said George S. Hawkins, the former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment and now the head of WASA.

Nationally, the problems on the Anacostia have been mirrored by a much larger environmental blind spot.

Historians say that in the decades after Earth Day was first observed in 1970 -- an era that also launched the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency -- the country made great strides in fighting obvious, noxious sources of pollution.

The Potomac River and Boston Harbor both got cleaner, thanks to drops in pollution from sewage plants. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the river so polluted that it infamously burned, saw its industrial contaminants decline.

But, for reasons of politics and psychology, the country has had far less success fighting pollutants that are invisible, or slow-acting, or that come from diffuse sources instead of a single pipe. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, one such problem has been manure running off farm fields. In the fight against climate change, the invisible problem is emissions trailing out of power plants, tailpipes and furnaces.

"We're pretty good in this country -- or at least we have been in the past -- addressing problems that are staring us right in the face, like rivers on fire," said David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan. "We have a harder time addressing problems that are less immediate, or where the causes of the problem are less apparent."

On the Anacostia, this kind of trouble is as widespread as the rain.

Scene: Hiking the Northwest Branch

Fat raindrops were falling through the tree canopy as the group of five walked farther downstream, along the leaf-floored valley that surrounds Northwest Branch. In one spot, construction work for the Intercounty Connector highway cut a treeless scar right across the valley.

But in other places, the stream's banks were wooded and quiet, except for the sound of the water -- and the occasional blare of a truck's horn, a reminder of the Montgomery County subdivisions just a few hundred yards away.

"What is it? Big!" With a nature lover's atrophied sense of disgust, Connolly was happily pointing out piles of dung along the path. His point was that the Anacostia's watershed could be a wild place. It was reinforced by beaver-chewed trees along the bank, and by deer and a red fox that darted through the woods ahead of the group.

But, as the rain fell, it carried traces of the city into the stream at the valley's center.

In one spot, the group paused to look at a patch of oil or grease -- perhaps carried through storm-sewer pipes -- now a multicolored sheen on the stream's surface.

"Dirty little rainbows," said Lee Cain, a staff member at the watershed society.

The Anacostia's future

Now, say officials around the Anacostia watershed, they're serious.

One part of their renewed cleanup effort is already in place: The District's "bag bill," which requires that retailers charge customers five cents for every paper or plastic shopping bag. The funds will go for cleanup measures, but the real hope is to cut use of plastic bags, the most common kind of trash found in the Anacostia's tributaries.

In coming years, WASA plans to dig three Metro-station-size tunnels under the city to store rainwater, which would be filtered before being dumped into the river.

Montgomery County officials have agreed to tackle stormwater by building grassy areas along roads where it can dissipate and ponds where it can rest after running off parking lots. They plan to retrofit 30 percent of the areas covered with hard surfaces this way.

And, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, local authorities have compiled a list of nearly 3,000 cleanup projects around the Anacostia watershed. Most are aimed at cleaning stormwater.

"People who are skeptical, I understand their skepticism," said Richard Eskin of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "But I think there's been a paradigm shift at the government level that makes these . . . fundamentally different from prior efforts."

But these plans have two important caveats.

They will require huge amounts of money, in a time when governments have little to give. WASA's underground tunnels will cost at least $2 billion, which will require rate increases for its customers. That will require approval from the agency's board, which will vote Thursday on a round of increases to begin later this year.

The Corps's plan has been estimated to cost $1 billion, of which exactly zero has been budgeted.

And even if officials found a way to pay for these plans, they still might not leave the river clean enough to swim in, or its fish safe to eat.

Making the river "fishable" would mean spending even more money to dig the toxins off the Anacostia's bottom, or cap them where they are. And making it swimmable would require deep cuts in fecal bacteria. And even after the sewage-catching tunnels are built, too much pet waste might still come down in the rain because not enough people pick up after their animals.

"Will it ever truly be safe to swim in?" Eskin said. "That, I don't know."

So what sort of Anacostia can the region reasonably expect?

The District government has stuck by the goal of a fishable, swimmable river -- but set a deadline years over the horizon, in 2032. "We wanted to be realistic," one city official said.

"It's very important that we don't over-promise and we don't create unrealistic expectations," said J. Charles Fox, the EPA's new senior adviser for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia. "I think that is a [lesson] that we've all learned over the past 20 years."

Several officials said a more likely outcome will be a river that looks better, because of efforts to trap floating trash, and smells better, because of reduced sewage overflows. That, they hope, will bring people back to the banks of a river that used to drive people away.

But is that the right point to aim for?

There are two schools of thought about this among environmentalists. One is that every little improvement, every promise, helps a river that seemed forgotten for years.

"It's frustrating a lot of times, but I'm kind of numb to the frustration," said Dennis Chestnut, who lives east of the Anacostia and has fought for the river for 20 years.

The other school is that the trash and the stink might actually be good things, since they draw people's attention to the river's overall poor health. If cleanup focused on erasing those obvious problems, deeper problems in the river might never be solved, worried Dottie Yunger, an advocate who has the title of "riverkeeper" for the Anacostia.

"They can see trash in the river. It's ugly. They don't like it," she said. "Then you start to talk to people about toxics, for example, or sediment and the river, and their eyes just start to glaze over."

Scene: On the Anacostia, Southeast Washington

Lessons learned while seeing the Anacostia from a canoe:

In the instant it leaps into the air off spindly legs, a great blue heron looks as awkward and unlikely as a person trying to fly. When a canoe hits a half-full beer can on the water's surface, it makes an unexpectedly loud scraping sound, like an iceberg. When the bow hits a smaller bottle of 5-Hour Energy drink, the sound is sharp, like two pool balls colliding.

The river, from up close, looks alternately horrible and vibrant, ugly and wild.

In the District's Kenilworth Marsh, national parkland adjacent to the famous aquatic gardens, Connolly directed the boat into an inlet and shushed everyone. There was only the sound of birds: sharp cries, rustles in the leaves and an indistinct back-and-forth in the distance that sounded like argument between two of Charlie Brown's teachers.

"Pretty cool, isn't it?" Connolly said, breaking the silence after a minute. "This is the middle of Washington."

As the boat made its way through urban Washington, Connolly said that the idea of a less-revolting Anacostia wasn't good enough for him.

"I don't think we should throw away this river and just, you know, assign it to a permanently degraded status. I think that the river deserves better, I think that the community deserves better, I think that the Chesapeake Bay deserves better," Connolly said later. "If we sort of just accept this river to be less disgusting, what does that say about us as a community?"

As the boat neared the river's mouth where it flows into the Potomac, the Anacostia's disgusting side was never far away. At one point, a ghostly-looking condom hovered just under the surface -- having likely spilled out with raw waste. At The Post photographer's request, Connolly and the reporter paddled the canoe forward, back and sideways, trying to line up a perfect shot of the drunkenly bobbing prophylactic.

Nationals Park and other new buildings loomed along the Anacostia waterfront. If a person on the riverbank saw anything in the water, it might have looked like a fish.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company