For the first time ever, the Anacostia River has passed an annual health-check that assesses the waterway for levels of toxins, trash and other environmental issues.
The grade — a 63, or D — is an accomplishment for a river that has failed every annual check for 10 years.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, an environmental advocacy group, issues an annual river report card to bring attention to the problems plaguing the Anacostia and the ways in which the waterway has improved.
This year’s grade is a culmination of decades of work, Anacostia Watershed Society president Jim Foster said in a statement. It has, he added, resulted in improved water clarity, less trash and rapid regrowth of submerged aquatic vegetation, which contributes to a healthy underwater ecosystem.
“Today’s announcement is a victory for 25 years of citizen activism and government leadership.” Foster said. “Swimmable and fishable is within our sight, and we are committed to getting there for the benefit of everyone who lives, works and visits this community.”
The river earned an A+ for its resurgence of aquatic vegetation and a B- for its levels of a microalgae that helps dissolve oxygen and replenishes nutrients in the water.
It also saw improvements in its levels of fecal bacteria, which scored a D; its water clarity, and the amount of toxins and trash found in the water, all of which still earned Fs.
The Anacostia improved its overall score by 29 percent this year, up from a 49 in 2017.
Still, it has a long way to go before it reaches the level of recovery undergone by its neighbor to the west, the Potomac River.
This year, the Potomac earned its first-ever B grade, issued by the Potomac Conservancy — the highest grade it has ever seen.
In 2007, the Potomac River scored a D+ because of pollution, runoff and poor water quality. It took five years to break into C-range.
Next year, advocates say, they expect even greater improvement with the Anacostia. That’s because D.C. Water, which has for years been digging deep tunnels underneath the river to store sewage, saw the first of its tunnels come online this year, too late to be counted in the river assessment.
The tunnels are meant to solve this problem: When it rains in Washington, water fills drains that, in some of the oldest parts of the city, have no separation from sewage on its way to the treatment plant. When that rain turns into heavy storms, the treatment plant can become overrun with sewage and water, which then overflows into Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.
The first tunnel has already helped cut the outpouring of sewage by more than 80 percent, the Anacostia Watershed Society estimated.
By 2025, a deadline created in the wake of the Clean Water Act, advocates believe the water will be safe enough for swimming and fishing.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser earlier this year announced a $4.7 million investment in two islands in the middle of the Anacostia that have been neglected for decades.
In so doing, the mayor declared 2018 the “Year of the Anacostia,” and designated portions of 45-acre Kingman Island and five-acre Heritage Island as state conservation areas, which restricts their use to environmental, education and recreational purposes, which will include outdoor classrooms, raised walkways, bathrooms and a floating lab.