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.

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.

But these agreements do not contain any binding cleanup dates, and in consequence, the pace of improvement has been oh-so-gradual. Things are bound to continue that way if the effort to clean up the river isn't given a huge public boost. So far, disappointingly, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative has not provided that jolt.

Yes, there is plenty of talk and there are volumes of written words. The plan's text exposes the need in great detail and proposes a thorough set of solutions.

Certainly, new development on the river should follow a fresh pattern, often called low-impact development, whereby buildings are sited and constructed with nature -- and the river -- in mind.

Clearly, the effort to uncover the Anacostia's long-buried tributaries, already begun at Watts Branch in Northeast Washington, will pay environmental and aesthetic dividends.

Demonstrably, many sections of that lovely 20-mile river walk can be combined with new, more ecologically sensitive, visually pleasing ways of treating the river's edge, replacing the old concrete or stone revetment with a kinder planted contour.

All of these proposals, and many more, should be eagerly pursued. It is vigor, however, that seems lacking. There is no sense of urgency about the fundamental substance that makes a river a river. We can wait around, the plan says, until 2025 to have Anacostia water we can safely swim in.

Yet what this complex plan lacks, above all, is a central focus, a sort of banner headline, to grip the public imagination. Water quality should be that focus.

"They ought to commit to a dramatic effort to improve the river by 2010, to make it clean, make it into a place you can paddle on with your child without fear for your health," says Arrasmith. "That would be something exciting, something all can buy into."

This seems right: Clean the water and the money, and people, will follow.

NEXT: Redoing the Southwest waterfront

Debris near the Anacostia Community Boathouse underscores the environmental challenge.Sewage and stormwater overflow has been a chronic stain on the river's vitality.Near the South Capitol Street Bridge, a heron's repose is marred by trash gathered around an old dock. Right, Donald Reeves has a more appealing view of the river from Hains Point.