For almost seven years, James Foster has been working for the Anacostia River. But only for the last few months has he been working on the river.
“I love being on the water. I almost don’t care if it’s in a rowboat or in the S.S. Minnow or whatever,” Foster said recently, sitting on a barge moored east of Fort McNair. “For me, it’s a logical and spiritual connection.”
Foster is president of the Anacostia Watershed Society , which is headquartered upriver in Bladensburg. Since May, the organization has had an auxiliary office on two barges anchored at the Eastern Power Boat Club. Formerly the property of the Gangplank Marina, the barges were relocated to facilitate construction of the Wharf redevelopment along the Washington Channel.
“I’m working to clean up this river. So this is where I need to be,” Foster said. “This is where the people are.”
Actually, aside from boaters and rowers, there don’t seem to be many people on this section of the Anacostia. The recently built bike trail gets little traffic, and the section of Water Street SE that leads to the marina hits a dead end. But change is coming, Foster predicted.
“You can see it reflected in the economic development that’s happening around Nats Park,” about a dozen blocks to the west, he said. “People are coming back there, and they’re anticipating that the water’s going to be clean. They want to walk along the river; they want to have waterfront property.”
So far, the two AWS barges have been used only for office work and meetings. “I’m still not quite ready to bring mass quantities of people in here,” Foster said. “The infrastructure’s still a little not done, shall we say.”
AWS has installed a composting toilet in one of the barges, and may add solar power and green roofs. In the long term, though, the organization expects its D.C. outpost will be at the 11th Street Bridge Park, projected to open in 2019.
As part of that project, AWS will have a classroom and a dock for canoes and kayaks. That will support the organization’s Saturday Environmental Academy, a 10-week spring and fall program for children from Wards 7 and 8. It could also provide a landing for Foster, who sometimes commutes from Bladensburg by boat.
A recently published AWS brochure, titled “A Waterway to 2025,” reflects the organization’s goal of having a swimmable and fishable Anacostia within 10 years.
“I think we should be able to expect to get in the water without having to check a Web site,” Foster said. “I think that we should able to eat the fish from the water without having to worry that they’re contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Right now, about 50 percent of our resident catfish are contaminated and have tumors and lesions.”
Foster acknowledged that AWS has set an ambitious timetable.
“Whether it’s going to be 2025, as I say, or 2032, as some of the D.C. officials say, it’s going to be in that time frame,” he said.
The river’s principal contemporary pollutant is untreated sewage, which enters from D.C. sewers that combine it with storm water. New tunnels to prevent the overflow are supposed to be in service by 2022.
But the Anacostia used to be an industrial river, and toxic waste from that era lingers. Near AWS’s floating office is the site of a former coal-gasification plant that is being cleaned up. The land is slated to become a park, but Foster anticipates more commercial development along this section of river bank — and sees advantages to it.
“I need the redevelopment in this watershed to fund the critical infrastructure that wasn’t constructed in the first place,” he said. “The Wharf is a great example. They’re building a giant cistern to capture the storm water that they’ll use for on-site power generation. They’ve got green roofs built in. They just recognize that this is the new normal.”
In addition to private developers and the D.C. government, AWS has to coordinate with Maryland, which contains 80 percent of the river’s watershed, and the federal government, which owns about 10 percent of it.
“All those folks, they all have their own piece and their own role,” Foster said. “We’re trying to choreograph this, and help facilitate it, but also hold people accountable.”
For all Foster’s optimism, he conceded that reclaiming the watershed will involve struggle. “The Anacostia’s always going to be an urban river,” he said. “So it’s going to be like urban combat. We have to go block by block and take it and hold it.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.