D.C. Water’s crew of river-based trash busters has gotten a major upgrade — another step in the long journey to return the Anacostia River to a place where people will again be able to swim, fish and frolic in it.
The agency has acquired two new skimmer boats to replace older models that have been in service for more than a decade but in their final years were spending as much time in the repair shop as they were on the water removing trash.
“Visually, this embodies our joint commitment to clean up this body of water,” D.C. Water General Manager George S. Hawkins said as he stood along the banks of the Anacostia at the Yards Park docks showing off the new fleet. Behind him, one of the two 50-foot boats, painted a soothing shade of light blue and emblazoned with the agency’s logo, bobbed in the water.
The new skimmers, which cost about $1 million, are bigger and faster and should make the effort to clear trash and debris from the river even more efficient. Each year the boats remove 300 to 500 tons of trash from the region’s waterways, Hawkins said.
“There’s really a need for these guys,” said Emily Franc, the riverkeeper at the nonprofit Anacostia Riverkeeper. Anacostia Riverkeeper is an advocacy organization working to restore the river.
The skimmers are just one element of a multipronged, multiagency strategy to clean the Anacostia and return it to swimmable, fishable condition, said Jeffrey Seltzer, associate director of the Water Quality Division at D.C.’s Department of Energy and the Environment.
Along with government agencies, a network of nonprofit groups also has been critical players, developing educational initiatives designed to educate the public about the importance of maintaining the region’s waterways, Seltzer said.
There have been other actions as well. The District’s 5-cent plastic bag tax that went into effect in 2010, has helped reduce the number of bags that turn up in the river and provided money to pay for other programs. A ban on foam food containers that went into effect last year is also aimed at reducing the number that turn up in the region’s waterways. Funds from the bag tax have helped pay for trash traps placed in strategic points to capture trash before it reaches the river. Cameras have been installed to monitor “hot spots” where people dump things in the river.
“All of these things, from policy to education to implementation, are really all pieces of the puzzle,” Seltzer said. “There is no one silver bullet.”
The work that D.C. Water does is another huge piece, he said, because the skimmer boats serve as a critical last line of defense once trash has reached the river.
At a time when major developments are taking root near Nationals Park and along the Southwest Waterfront, such efforts are even more important, officials say.
“As a city, we are rediscovering that we live by the water,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
Allen recalled how a decade ago, he had brought his wife to a spot along the Anacostia to explain how officials planned to transform an area that consisted mostly of light industrial developments to a place where people could live, work and play. Now with the ballpark, new restaurants and grassy parkland, the transformation is taking root, he said.
The new skimmers are “a concrete, significant investment to get the river we want,” he said.
Unlike their predecessors the newest members of D.C. Water’s river fleet, have spiffy new monikers — chosen, of course, through a social media campaign that invited the public to vote on their favorites.
The nominations included some doozies. Allen joked that he was disappointed his favorites, “Plastic” and “Bottle” didn’t make the cut. In the end, the public settled on “Flotsam” and “Jetsam,” which will be painted on each one.
The boats are 50 feet long and weigh 26,000 pounds each. Able to reach a maximum speed of three or four knots, they are not fast, but they are efficient at removing trash and debris from the river. The skimmers are equipped with metal conveyor belts that glide along the surface capturing solid items, which are then moved to the back of the boat.
At the controls on this particular day was Thomas Johnson, who has worked at D.C. Water for almost two decades. He started as a meter reader and eventually moved to his current job as a skimmer boat operator. D.C. Water has been operating the boats since the early 1990s. Johnson remembers a time when their holds would fill quickly with all manner of trash — chairs, shopping carts.
Johnson carefully maneuvered the skimmer away from the dock. He controlled the boat using a pair of joysticks — one on each side of his seat. As he approached the middle of the river, he lowered the long metal skimmer and opened its “jaws.” The brownish water filtered through the metal grooves.
Johnson said he’s still getting used to the “feel” of the new boats, but likes the purr of the engines and the way they maneuver. Not much turns up on this quick trip — a few small logs and a forlorn ice cream wrapper. Even so, that’s one less wrapper floating in the Anacostia.
“The river is already getting cleaner,” said Tommy Wells, the former D.C. Council member who is now director of the District’s Department of Energy and Environment. “We’re not there yet, but with all this work it is getting cleaner.”