The District’s five-cent bag fee was implemented to raise funds to clean the Anacostia River. However, its actual effect on the environment is in dispute. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The District of Columbia’s 5-cent bag fee — heralded as one of the nation’s most successful “bag laws” — has become a familiar and accepted routine at cash registers across the city. Shoppers who need a paper or plastic bag shell out just a nickel, a price so nominal that some don’t even notice the charge.

Six years ago, lawmakers sold the new legislation as a way to clean the Anacostia River, a waterway notorious for its toxic history and cringe-worthy pollutants, from soda bottles and cigarette butts to rusty tires and raw sewage. A catchy slogan — “Skip the Bag, Save the River” — promoted the river-cleaning cause.

The nickels from the bag fee have contributed about $10 million — since 2010 — to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund.

“I think it’s been one of the most successful legislative interventions into a known trash problem in decades,” said Tommy Wells, the former D.C. Council member who crafted the law in 2009 and now heads the District Department of the Environment. “I think it’s been extraordinarily successful.”

Despite the growing praise for the program, the reality is as murky as the Anacostia, according to a recent city audit and The Washington Post’s review of the fund. Measurements for success are admittedly nonscientific and vary widely, and more of the fund money has been allocated for field trips for schoolchildren and employee salaries than to tangible cleanup projects on the river and its watershed.

Bags and pieces of trash are seen hanging in branches just in front of the Nash Run trap, which is in place to capture waste before it enters the Anacostia River. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The largest grant from the fund so far, $1.2 million, will be paid over the next two years to send every D.C. fifth-grader on a two-night field trip at campsites outside the District, some up to 30 miles from the Anacostia River. Ten thousand children will participate in activities designed to provide a “meaningful watershed education experience,” such as ­canoeing, talking about trash, conducting water-quality experiments and learning to milk a cow.

In addition, more than $1.7 million of fund money went toward personnel costs, according to data provided to The Post under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The Post’s review showed that only about one-third of spending and allocations had gone toward trash traps to clean the river, rain barrels and rain gardens to catch runoff, green roofs, tree plantings, or stream restoration.

Julia Robey Christian, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment, disputed how The Post categorized the spending. She said the one-third estimate is low because that figure should include the salaries of employees who are essential in implementing the law.

Keith Anderson, who led the department from 2012 to 2014, told The Post that he stands by how funds have been spent.

“I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” he said.

Both Christian and Anderson said the field trips fulfill the law’s priority for youth education.

“Whatever they learn 30 miles away, they can use in their own back yard,” Anderson said. “The point of this legislation is to make sure our river is fishable and swimmable by 2032.”

Spirit of the law

When the legislation passed in 2009, lawmakers described it as a “new and aggressive” way to clean the river.

There are questions, however, about whether the spending has lived up to that promise.

The audit, released in October, found that fund money paid for portions of the salaries of 17 employees, although only one new position was created as a result of the fee.

A draft of the audit, obtained by The Post, contained a finding that using the fund to pay for preexisting salaries may have violated the bag law. The law includes a clause that the fund money cannot be used to “supplant,” or replace, funding for annual river-cleaning activities. But after the department objected to the auditor’s interpretation of the law, the personnel costs were relabeled a “concern” rather than a formal audit finding, and there was no mention of the clause.

Kathy Patterson, who became the D.C. auditor in December after the audit’s completion, told The Post that the report was produced by an audit manager who has left the office.

“We should have recommended that the council revisit the ‘supplant’ language and repeal it if they were not serious about the department spending solely on new activities or new hires to work on these issues,” she said.

The draft also showed that a hefty 43 percent of the fund’s expenditures went to administer the program over four years. But after the department contended that it wasn’t fair to lump personnel, legal and overhead expenses into one administrative category, the final audit did not calculate the total administrative costs.

“The draft audit report obtained by The Washington Post was just that — a draft,” Christian said. “We were able to clarify issues to ensure that the final report was accurate.”

The law lays out 14 priorities for spending money, including public awareness, education, wildlife conservation and cleanup.

About $6.8 million of the $10 million in the fund has been spent or allocated.

The audit examined the fund from 2010 to 2013. It listed projects, including: more than $800,000 toward trash traps; $242,000 for rain barrels; more than $200,000 to train environmental ambassadors and stewards; and nearly $29,000 for a survey to figure out how people feel about litter (most are bothered by it). More than $600,000 has been spent on advertising, including $49,016 to The Post.

Wells, who took over for Anderson in January, said he might have set different priorities if he had been in charge earlier. “I might spend it differently,” he said.

The spokeswoman later clarified Wells’s comment.

“Director Wells’s comment was not intended to insinuate that spending choices made by previous directors were inappropriate, rather that as the context of the law’s implementation changes, so should the spending priorities,” Christian said.

Wells said he has plans to allocate $500,000 of fund money to restore a tributary called Nash Run. Other plans include $79,000 for boat tours on the Anacostia.

Anderson, the former director who now runs the Department of Parks and Recreation, said that under his watch, there were more than 1,600 rain gardens installed and 12 tons of trash captured as a result of bag-fee funds.

“This takes personnel,” he said. “This takes bodies. This takes boots on the ground.”

Proof in the numbers?

Over the past five years, the D.C. bag fee has been promoted as a stunning environmental success that spurred many District shoppers to eschew disposable bags in favor of reusable totes. D.C. officials have repeatedly based that claim on estimates made almost immediately after the law went into effect in 2010.

After the fee started, within months officials released figures showing a drop from a purported 22.5 million bags used per month to 3.3 million — an 85 percent decrease. Those figures have made their way into countless news stories, academic reports and the U.S. congressional record. But there is little evidence that such a sudden, drastic reduction occurred.

“Well, I know that we did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, which is about as unscientific as possible,” Wells said.

According to a footnote in a report from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer in 2009, there was no reliable estimate of bag use in the District.

So officials modified estimates from Seattle Public Utilities, which came from a 2004 waste-composition study that involved sifting through loads of trash in garbage trucks. D.C. officials came up with a figure of 270 million bags used annually in grocery, drug, convenience and liquor stores in the District — more than 450 per person.

Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability for South Carolina-based Novolex, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of plastic and paper bags, said he pointed out to D.C. officials that the Seattle numbers exceeded federal estimates for the number of plastic bags the average American used.

“If you overestimate the number to begin with, it’s easy to claim success,” Rozenski said. “Their original estimates were murky.”

Revenue from the bag fee has increased each year since the fee’s inception.

District officials now promote the program’s success based on a local survey in 2013 funded by $60,000 of bag-fee money paid to the Alice Ferguson Foundation. The survey asked 600 residents of D.C. households how many disposable bags they used before the fee, compared with their current use. The results of the survey showed that District households, on average, estimated they had decreased bag use by 60 percent, from 10 bags a week to four.

Other cities considering bag laws have referenced the huge drops in bag use in the District.

In November, Anderson led a D.C. delegation that testified before the New York City Council, which is considering a 10-cent fee on paper and plastic bags. D.C. officials touted the 60 percent drop. City Councilman David G. Greenfield (D) said in the hearing that he was “perplexed” by the presentation of “impressive-sounding statistics” when tax data for the District, which he found from a Google search that led to a Post article, showed no drop in fee revenue.

“What that means, logically, is that people are still paying to use bags, and therefore you have not significantly reduced that,” Greenfield said at the time. A member of the D.C. delegation responded that the key measure of the law’s success was the 60 percent drop, not the revenue figures.

Wells told The Post that the revenue is not declining because new grocery stores have opened in the District and there is less “leakage” of shoppers to stores in Virginia and Maryland.

Wells said he thinks the real proof can be seen in the Anacostia River. On a recent afternoon he pointed out his office window in NoMa, saying that he didn’t see any bags billowing in nearby trees.

He noted that bald eagles have returned to the District’s Arboretum. And recently, he saw a bird fly by and pick up a fish from the Anacostia River. Years ago, he joked, a bird eating from the river would have fallen out of the sky — dead.

“I’m focusing on trash, not the number of bags used,” Wells said. “The point with this wasn’t to make you stop using bags. The point was to get the uncaptured trash out of the environment . . . the stuff that ends up in the ocean, the stuff that ends up in the rivers.”

Wells pointed to another figure from the Alice Ferguson Foundation that showed a 60 percent drop in bags recovered in annual volunteer cleanups of the Potomac Watershed.

The foundation’s executive director said the data should be considered anecdotal because it is subject to changes in weather and cataloguing methods.

The Post asked for the raw data for all cleanup sites in the District since 2007. The foundation provided summary data that showed about a 30 percent drop in bags. The director later said missing data had been uncovered, showing that the drop was actually more than 70 percent.

Another nonprofit group, the Anacostia Watershed Society, said it has counted plastic bags at its trash trap at Nash Run since 2009. More than $115,000 in bag fee money has gone into maintaining the trap, which is near the Deanwood neighborhood.

On a Friday in April, rain showers drove a steady flow of garbage into the trap. An empty Welch’s juice bottle, a foam container and a Doritos bag were among the finds. Just upstream, two plastic bags were caught in the tree limbs dangling over the water.

“It’s amazing, the power of a nickel,” said Jim Foster, president of the society.

The society has reported declines in bags collected, but the data shows a recent uptick. This year, the trap is collecting roughly the same number of bags per kilogram of total trash as it did in 2009, before the fee began.

“The whole point of the bag fee isn’t that the river is going to suddenly be clean and mermaids will appear,” Foster said. “It’s an incremental difference.”