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

A journey along portions of the Anacostia River reveal decades-long failure to improve the ecosystem and water quality.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

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!"

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