"Our goal is a fishable, swimmable Anacostia River, and over the past few years, we have made tremendous progress toward that goal," Bowser said. "However, there is more to do, and these conservation designations and this new funding will help us get that work done."
Improvements to Kingman and Heritage islands could mean "a much higher level of outdoor environmental education" for children who live east of the Anacostia in the District's poor and predominantly African American neighborhoods, said Doug Siglin, executive director of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.
The Rev. Keith D. Kitchen, pastor of the Zion Baptist Church of Eastland Gardens in Ward 7, said when young people see the government is serious about investing in the river, "their self-esteem will rise and their learning possibilities will increase."
Students already explore the islands, which can be reached by walkways from a parking lot at RFK Stadium, but are limited by the lack of bathrooms and shelter, said Kitchen, who often walks the trails there before he heads to church. He called the islands a reminder of the natural beauty that can exist even when located "on a river choked with pollution."
The fate of Kingman Island has long been tied to the stadium. When the Redskins left in the mid-1990s, so, too, did the island begin to feel abandoned. That has changed in recent years with increased investment from advocates, who Kitchen said plan to continue raising money to fund an environmental center, which would likely cost another $5 million.
The slow-moving river that divides the District has long collected trash and sewage. But beginning this spring, the Anacostia will be substantially cleaner because a massive underground tunnel being built by D.C. Water is expected to divert 98 percent of wastewater flow.
Once the tunnel is completed, and assuming it has not rained recently, Siglin said he would "happily jump in" the river — a suggestion that would have seemed unthinkable not long ago.
The idea that the river was toxic "became both a real and symbolic thing that spoke to the division in our city," said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who introduced a bill with councilman Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) this month to designate Kingman Island a state park.
"If we can do more on both sides of the river, it can be a focus point for bringing our city together," said Grosso, who credited former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) with promoting the Anacostia River's health as a way to unify the city.
Williams planned a $9 million environmental education center on Kingman Island in 2005; however, those plans were abandoned when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took office. A plan approved by the D.C. Council in 1997 would have created an amusement park on the site, but that was shut down by the District's federally appointed control board.
The first attempt to develop the islands, which were created by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1916 from soil dredged from the river bottom, was when Lady Bird Johnson recruited an architect to develop an educational center in 1966, Siglin said. That failed, too.
But Bowser's commitment will make a difference, in part because it is "less grandiose" than previous plans and in part because it has support from the communities on both sides of the river, Siglin said.
"This is the fifth time we've tried to do something good on Kingman Island, but I'm pretty confident we can really get something done this time," he said.