Sirens and the sounds of highway traffic, airplanes and helicopters pierce the quiet calm of the Anacostia River, as the D.C. Fisheries boat cruises under a railroad trestle, across the District line into Maryland.
Near Dueling Creek, supervisory biologist Daniel Ryan gooses the engine to prime a water pump that fills a tank in the center of the 18-foot Smith Root Electrofisher. The boat is outfitted with a raised platform on the bow and a pair of probes that lower into the water to create a current to lure and immobilize fish for easy catch.
Luke Lyon, a fisheries biologist who works under Mr. Ryan at the D.C. Department of the Environment (DDOE), directs him to a tangle of logs and rocks near the west bank where he expects to find the invasive snakehead fish.
Within 30 seconds, Mr. Lyon has netted a blue catfish, a snakehead, a goldfish and a largemouth bass, which he will measure, weigh and later release.
"We hit one log for 30 seconds and get four non-native species of fish," Mr. Lyon says as he dips the 11-pound snakehead back into the tank.
A comparison of the digestive tracts of these meddlesome critters leads to a discussion of a project Mr. Lyon has designed. It involves gutting specimens to study what the fish eat and how contaminated they have become.
For these city biologists, it's an important sort of government work that goes largely unnoticed. Yet as the D.C. government seems bogged down with the dirt and taint of political scandal, DDOE, six years after its creation, is at the forefront of a national discussion about making urban areas cleaner.
Here on this stretch of river, roughly 6 feet deep, 150 yards wide and within sight of a maze of government buildings, politics seems trivial. Farther upriver, Mr. Ryan guides the craft past Langston Golf Course and into a shallow marsh toward Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, behind a piece of land that used to house a city dump.
In a small sign of progress, the area now is home to ducks, Canada geese, beavers and turtles, and one of them — a turtle, a beaver? — causes a sudden splash that sounds like a body falling overboard.
"The river looks good today," Mr. Lyon says. "We haven't had any rain and there's no trash."
Mr. Ryan, who also is accompanied this warm and sunny day by supervisory environmental protection specialist Nicoline Shulterbrandt, mentions another sign of progress, a DDOE-assisted project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) to study liver tumors and measure contaminants in bullhead catfish.
The joint study found that water quality improvement projects over the past decade have led to a decrease in numbers of infected fish and size of the tumors, Mr. Ryan said.
"It's not just fisheries science, because now we're looking at it in terms of stormwater runoff and water quality," he said. "That's unique that we've integrated it into the bigger picture. It's trendsetting, and [others] are going to follow us."
"People don't realize what a gem we have right here outside our backdoor," Ms. Shulterbrandt added.
Still, there's no doubt the river remains far too dirty. Government warnings state that the city's waters are not fishable or swimmable because of a legacy of pollution and toxics. Asked whether he would eat any of the fish he routinely catches and studies, Mr. Lyon doesn't hesitate: "I would not."
DDOE Director Christophe Tulou, a holdover from the Adrian M. Fenty administration, oversees 300 environmental professionals in four administrations, 13 divisions and 14 branches set up to protect the District's natural resources.
Mr. Tulou arrived from the Pew Environmental Trust in May 2010 after a long career that has earned him a national reputation in environmental, energy, natural resource and climate policy.
A former secretary for Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and a former staff director to a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, Mr. Tulou inherited DDOE after water and air quality divisions were carved from the Department of Health and merged in 2006 with energy divisions from the Department of Public Works.
The combination of expertise and authority under one roof allows him to be more mission-focused, Mr. Tulou said.
"The more consolidated these functions are, the easier for others to collaborate with you," he said, noting partner agencies such as the Public Works Department, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the D.C. Department of Transportation, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Mr. Tulou is the rare official who embraces the District's quasi-state status, preferring no middleman between local and federal authorities. "You don't have to beg and plead with state officials," he said of the process of working within a multijurisdictional region. "It's more efficient, quick and predictable."
D.C. government is not often described in such terms.
Yet Mr. Tulou revels in his position on Mayor Vincent C. Gray's "Green Cabinet," which has the task of advancing Mr. Gray's "Sustainable D.C." environmental plan, which he will formally announce Tuesday.
There are signs that the District is well-positioned to be a leader in the sustainability movement.
In 2011, the U.S. Green Building Council rated the District the top city in the nation in per capita certified "green" buildings for cities of more than 200,000 people, and first in the nation among states in square feet of certified "green" buildings per capita.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rated the District the top city in per capita Energy Star-rated buildings, the No. 2 city in total number of Energy Star buildings and the top city in green power usage.
According to the Trust for Public Land, D.C. rates second among U.S. cities for "green space," defined by urban parkland as a percentage of a city's total acreage, and in acres of parkland per capita for high-density cities.
"We are involved in everything from regulation to major public works to bugs and bunnies," Mr. Tulou said.
The agency has a $100 million annual budget and 300 employees, including biologists, toxicologists, engineers and nurses.
With the resources at his disposal, Mr. Tulou said, he aspires to goals that transcend energy and environment and into areas such as economic development. One initiative involves investing in technology and jobs to "aid and abet" the installation of a filtration system across the city's 1.4 million square feet of vegetated roofs and into Rock Creek Park.
He contends that a permanent workforce could result from a program to plant trees, landscape roofs and design systems to make hard surfaces "spongier" to reduce the runoff that pollutes the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. "It could be a hybrid system of jobs creation for engineers and unskilled labor, more so than construction jobs that last six months," he said.
Although he did not cite any overt ideological opposition to such ideas, he said the challenge lies in defining what is possible and obtaining the funding for it.
"My idea of being sustainable is not relying on government to get the job done," he said.
The D.C. Building Industry Association says it is proud to be at the forefront of the sustainability movement. David Tuchman, a vice chairman of the association's committee on the environment and a vice president at Akridge, a construction and commercial real estate company, testified before the D.C. Council in February that developers are interested in partnering with the District to realize its goal of sustainability.
But Mr. Tuchman also said that DDOE's permitting and review process is getting in the way of new development and redevelopment of contaminated property. He told the council that DDOE permit procedures have "jeopardized the attraction and retention of businesses, which employ our residents, pay taxes and financially stabilize our city."
The building industry, Mr. Tuchman and others say, also would like to be more involved in policymaking during its formative stages, and would like to see regulations applied more consistently.
DDOE counters that it uses a rule-making process similar to that used at the federal level, and that while it solicits input and participation from many constituencies, the agency attempts to avoid unfair access for any specific interest group and delays caused by having to engage all potential stakeholders.
Chris Weiss, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Network, says the building industry has plenty of access to policy and decision makers and he would rather that commercial developers regard the green-building movement as a way of doing business.
"Urban areas are where it's at in the environmental movement," he said, noting that Mr. Gray's Sustainable D.C. initiative came about after the mayor saw what other big city mayors were doing.
"Having a vision is a good start, and we appreciate that the mayor is prepared to outline key issue areas, even if we don't always agree," he said. "But to be truly sustainable, we need to show how we are improving the health and economic prospects of D.C. residents."
Mr. Weiss said the District has been successful in passing green legislation and is off to a good start in the building of green buildings, but that DDOE needs to grow and to implement programs that meet its regulatory goals more efficiently. "We have to figure it out a lot faster," he said.
Asked whether the public supports government investment in green building, Mr. Weiss said there was significant public input into the mayor's energy and environment plan, but added, "We're still stuck to a degree with our consumption and lifestyle habits. We need to be able to meet these goals and not give up driving."
The mere existence of DDOE makes it easier for the mayor to even think about a sustainability plan, Mr. Weiss added, noting what some see as an inherent conflict in Mr. Gray's actions.
"It seems hard to promote sustainability on one hand and then on the other promote bringing six Wal-Marts to D.C.," he said, criticizing the megaretailer's green credentials.
"We will really become a leader when our decisions are consistent with creating a sustainable city, and not just an environmentally one," he said.
Working on the river
On Friday, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Lyon again set out, this time for the Potomac River with their colleague Shellie Bronis, a fisheries biologist who has been with DDOE since November, having come over from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
"We've been able to coax a few really talented people away from Maryland DNR," Mr. Ryan said as he guided the boat down the Anacostia toward Hains Point, where it meets the Potomac. "Shellie and Luke are two of them."
Owing to the lack of rainfall this spring, there is only a light chop on the water as the tail end of rush hour is visible on the bridges overhead.
"Usually, it's whitewater through here and it can get a little hairy," Mr. Ryan said. "You've got to respect the river, and it can be a little intimidating. But the higher flows bring the fish."
On this day, the crew will be going past Chain Bridge to look for snakeheads to be tagged and measured. It seems strange to call it work, given the crew's love for being on water, but Mr. Ryan said his people often put in a full day. In the spring and summer, they go out again at night after a good rainfall when the river swells.
Mr. Ryan once was an aspiring tournament bass fisherman until a colleague lured him to D.C. Fisheries.
Mr. Lyon said he always knew he wanted to be a biologist. He worked summers for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources before attending Virginia Tech to pursue his passion.
Rounding Hains Point, Mr. Ryan guns the engine and the boat planes through one of the few no-wake zones on this stretch and sprays the crew with water. He slows until the boat is clear of the 14th Street Bridge, then guns it again until he reaches Memorial Bridge, where it will be slow going from here.
Rowing teams, kayakers and sport fisherman dot the river ahead. About a half-mile up a large rock cropping in the middle of the channel marks where the river is at its deepest. Mr. Ryan measures a depth of 79 feet, though some days it can be as deep as 85 feet.
The sight of anglers along the banks and in small motorboats and rented skiffs sparks a debate among the crew over what constitutes better eating: white perch or striped bass, also known as stripers or rockfish.
Mr. Ryan said that because both fish — and shad, which are benefiting from more conservative regulation in recent years — grow up in the ocean and migrate to fresh water to spawn, they are not as contaminated as resident species.
"I've been making the argument for years that white perch is better eating than rockfish," Mr. Ryan said, prompting a different point of view from Ms. Bronis, who said she soaks the rockfish in milk before cooking.
Black cormorants are clustered in trees on the riverbank, and Mr. Lyon says this as a sign that fish are near.
"Our biggest problem will be finding productive parts of shoreline where there aren't so many fishermen," he said.
Beyond Chain Bridge, the crew gets to work. Mr. Lyon and Ms. Bronis use long-handled nets to pull in snakeheads after the fish are immobilized by the electrical current surrounding the boat.
Nearby anglers greet the crew and joke about what they could catch with an electro-fishing boat such as this. Two men from Rockville seem to be doing all right, hauling in a 25-pound blue catfish and posing for a photograph.
Moving closer to the steep cliffs on the Virginia side, Mr. Ryan turns broadside and lets the current take the boat back downstream, occasionally giving it gas to carry it back upstream, then back down again.
Pedestrians stop on Chain Bridge to watch as the DDOE crew hauls in a few small snakeheads. "Nice snag, Luke," Mr. Ryan says as his colleague nets a decent-sized snakehead, records its weight and measurements and tags it with blue plastic insulated fishing line.
When he gets back to his office, Mr. Lyon will enter data into a computer spreadsheet and share it with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's just a small slice of what DDOE does, but it's a holistic mission that keeps these biologists busy.
"A lot of fisheries work is done at night because it's easier to catch the fish," Mr. Ryan says. "But we don't go out on the water on Friday night."
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