Just above Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium near a tributary leading to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Doug Siglin points to a blue-crested bird rising above the Anacostia River.
"That's a belted kingfisher, really beautiful," he says while doing one of the things he loves most: giving first-time visitors a boat tour of the river.
Back at the dock, 2,000 yards from the Capitol and several hundred feet from the left-field fence of the proposed baseball stadium in Southeast, a dead bullhead catfish lies on the pier. Siglin isn't sure how the bottom feeder got there, but he does know one thing: The Anacostia's brown bullheads have the highest cancer rate found in any fish variety in the country.
The beautiful and the ugly go hand in hand in and near the Anacostia River, whose eight-mile stretch between Fort McNair and Bladensburg once was one of the richest wetlands areas in the world.
"The Creator created this river as a healthy system. It had been in balance," said Siglin, director of the Anacostia River Initiative, a program of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But generations in the District and Maryland, he says, have "re-created a very polluted river . . . with only a fraction of the biology it once had."
A Methodist-turned-Episcopalian, Siglin, 48, believes the Creator has given people of faith -- Christians and non-Christians -- the responsibility of being stewards of the Earth. And people of faith in the Washington area, he says, "should be outraged" at the putrid state of their God-given river and should work to "undo the damage."
Such thinking was the basis of the new Religious Partnership for the Anacostia River, a consortium of interfaith clergy and laity that hosted its first community meeting recently in Southeast Washington. The goal of the partnership is "to contribute to the restoration of the Anacostia River and to tangibly assist the residents of the neighborhoods around it," according to its mission statement.
Spearheading the effort are Siglin, the Rev. Clark Lobenstine of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and Bob Nixon, chairman of the board of Earth Conservation Corps.
Formation of the partnership was good news for the Rev. Rodger Reed Sr., 65, pastor of Campbell AME Church in Southeast and one of the speakers at that first gathering, at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
"Anacostia once was a proud place," Reed said of the neighborhoods whose identities and character are entwined with the river. Generations of "misuse," such as the construction of pollution-contributing industries and housing developments, brought the area down, he said.
"The whole community has devolved to a sense of nothingness, gone to seed," Reed said. What's more, he said, the District continues "to pour pollution into the river where children can't go wading."
Reed was referring to one of the most unsettling aspects of Anacostia River pollution: the pouring of raw sewage into the river during heavy rains -- about 75 to 80 times a year, according to various studies.
Much of the District's wastewater system is more than a century old and combines sewage and storm drainage into a single channel that takes both wastes to the water treatment plant. During heavy rains, the system overflows and sends the combined waste directly into the Anacostia, the Potomac River and Rock Creek, with the greatest volume going into the Anacostia, Siglin said.
The presence of human fecal matter, the source of disease in many undeveloped countries, creates unhealthy conditions for waders, boaters, fishermen and anyone else in contact with the river water, according to a report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Combined with other pollutants, including industrial wastes and fertilizer chemicals, fecal bacteria has led to the river's health rating of 17 out of a possible 100, according to "The Anacostia River: a Health Index," to be released Monday.
The condition of the river has improved in recent years because of volunteer efforts by environmental groups and such nonprofit organizations as Earth Conservation Corps, which hires young people from Anacostia neighborhoods to clean up debris, build river walks and plant trees, shrubs and aquatic vegetation.
Individual congregations have been involved in cleanup efforts, and the environmental committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has made the Anacostia a priority, said Siglin, who serves on the panel. But no interfaith effort has been made on the level of that envisioned for the Religious Partnership for the Anacostia -- one that hopes to enlist houses of worship throughout the river's watershed area, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, he said.
About 150 people of different faiths attended the September meeting at Matthews Memorial. Speakers included the Rev. Susan Newman, senior advisor for religious affairs to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams; Rabbi Warren Stone of Temple Emanuel in Bethesda; Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif, of Majidush-Shura in Southeast; and the Rev. John Bryson Chane, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
"The challenge before us is to reconnect the secular and utilitarian with the sacred," Chane said in his talk, "Searching for a Theology of Ecology."
"This is essential if we are to reclaim our role as God's stewards," the bishop said. "With this reclamation must come the realization that there is no such thing as a morally neutral choice when it comes to making decisions about how we treat the environment and its creatures. There are only good and bad choices. Not making a choice is in fact making a choice to do nothing."
Doing something about the Anacostia means starting with practical actions to stop the flow of sewage into the river, states a brochure available through the coalition's Web site, www.religiouspartnership.org. "Restorative Landscaping: Real Ways to Help Save the Anacostia" encourages homeowners, businesses, government offices and houses of worship throughout the Anacostia River watershed -- 176 square miles, 85 percent of which is in Maryland -- to reduce the amount of rainwater going into storm drains.
Suggestions include directing downspouts so water flows to a "buffer garden" with shrubs and other plants; capturing rainwater in barrels and using it to water flowers; creating parking areas with gravel or porous masonry blocks; and creating roof gardens consisting of layers of soil, drainage material and succulent plants on a waterproof membrane.
On a policy level, the partnership will ask members to support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's efforts to persuade Congress to replace the city's antiquated sewage system. Congress, which has oversight of the District, has allocated $85 million to begin the improvements, which ultimately could cost $2 billion, Siglin said.
David Smith, 30, who grew up near the Anacostia and who is program director for Earth Conservation Corps, said it's important to "understand the bigger picture" of what pollutes the Anacostia while taking such small steps as improving access for boaters and replanting vegetation on river banks and in the water.
As the Anacostia's official "riverkeeper," Smith keeps another universal view in mind as he regularly drives his motorized skiff up and down the river to check on the corps's restoration efforts, including more than a dozen eagles the group released on the river that have created nests.
Every time he goes on the river, "I can feel the presence of God," said Smith, who attends St. John's Baptist Church in Marshall Heights. Despite the pollution, despite human efforts to control the water flow, the river refuses to be defeated and somehow finds a way to support some wildlife and vegetation.
"That's a testament to just how powerful God is in creation," he said.
the process. The continued presence of wildlife amid pollution is seen as evidence of God.