- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

From Bladensburg Waterfront Park — at the port where four-masted schooners bringing luxury goods from Europe once berthed — our small group is heading downstream in much more modest vessels: two kayaks and a canoe.

Our mission: to explore the beleaguered but strangely beautiful Anacostia River, which begins in a dozen Maryland streams and flows some eight miles through Prince George’s County and the District, joining the Potomac at Hains Point.

The river presents formidable environmental challenges and surprising recreational opportunities, including boating, bicycling and birding.

Jim Connolly, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), and Charles “Collie” Agle, an AWS board member whose company, Pathfinder Tours, leads kayak trips that explore the river’s delicate ecosystem, are giving a reporter and a photographer a four-mile round-trip tour, with a kayaker’s-eye view of the problems and promise of Washington’s forgotten river.

“I like to take people out on the Anacostia to show that it’s a very beautiful river and that it’s got major problems, and to make people more aware of the issues involved in protecting the river,” says Mr. Agle, as he demonstrates the proper touring stroke with his paddle.

“People in Washington think of the Anacostia as something they cross over to get to I-95 going north. There’s little awareness of the river as a potential resource.”

As we push downstream, we are following in the wake of Capt. John Smith, the first European to explore the river in 1608, who did appreciate the river’s resources.

Smith found thriving villages populated by the Nanchotank tribe along the river banks. The Nanchotank used the river not only for transportation and commerce but as a food source, taking shad, perch, sunfish, catfish and herring from its waters.

People still fish along the banks, but the water quality has seriously declined since Smith’s visit, and dining on the Anacostia’s bounty is not recommended.

“Our original goal was to make the river fit for swimming and fishing by 2000,” says Mr. Connolly. “That didn’t happen, but we haven’t picked a new date. It all depends on the political will to clean up the river.”

n n n

At Bladensburg, we are at the “head of tide,” the point above which the river isn’t navigable.

“This is the confluence — where fast-moving streams meet the slower tidal water,” Mr. Connolly says. “When the two meet, it’s as if the streams hit a wall. The sediment from the streams, which contains toxic particles from sewers and runoff, settles out and silts up the river.”

This was once one of the busiest ports on the East Coast, he adds. But the water here, 40 feet deep in the port’s heyday, now comes up only to the ankles at low tide because of accumulated sediment.

But this morning the tide is high at three feet, the paddling is easy and fish are jumping. Just ahead of us, a tern dives into the water after a fish.

“There’s a great blue heron,” points out Mr. Agle, as a big, lumbering bird flies across the river, sounding its signature squawk and disappearing into the tall trees along the banks.

Much of the land along the river is parkland, and the vegetation is thick and lush and green. Two turtles sun themselves on dead trees that stick into the water. Urban life seems far away, and one would not be surprised to see the African Queen steaming around the bend.

Instead, a pontoon boat filled with waving school children purrs by, on an AWS-sponsored discovery trip.

n n n

We paddle on, along a part of the river that was straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1930s and 1940s as part of a flood control project, and listen to the sound of red-winged blackbirds — one of more than 150 species of birds, including bald eagles — that frequent the riverbank.

One species is not welcome, however: Canada geese, which are taking over the habitats and eating the food of native species. To try to manage the population explosion of these fowl, AWS coats the birds’ eggs with oil each spring, preventing them from hatching.

“We’re not talking about the migratory Canada geese, which are smaller and which don’t nest here,” Mr. Connolly explains. “The resident Canada geese destroy the native wetland plants that the native species need.”

One of the native species environmentalists hope to bring back to the Anacostia is the sora or Carolina rail, an elusive marsh bird. About half a mile downstream from Bladensburg, near the mouth of Dueling Creek (which leads to the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, where affairs of honor were once settled and which is now part of Colmar Manor Park), we stop to inspect a project designed to attract the “skinny-as-a-rail” birds. Behind fences erected to keep the Canada geese from eating the seeds are aquatic gardens planted with wild rice.

“Around July, the rice gets tall,” Mr. Connolly says. “We’re doing it to reintroduce a native plant species, to increase biodiversity, and to attract the sora rail.

“Once there was a huge population of these birds on the Anacostia, and people used to come here to shoot them. When the rice disappeared, the birds left, too. Last summer, some Park Service employees heard a sora rail.”

n n n

Bringing back the sora rail is just one way in which AWS is trying to restore the river to its pre-polluted state. Planting native species of flora, such as wild rice and arrow arum, is another. But the group removes some invasive introduced plants, such as Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy, which crowd out native plants.

Like the Canada geese, invasive plants “take over the habitat of native species,” Mr. Agle explains.

Barn swallows flit noisily back and forth across the river, and Mr. Agle points out a pileated woodpecker — a large but shy bird identifiable by its pointy, Woody Woodpecker-like red crest — taking off from a branch.

Only the chirping of the birds and the whooshing of the paddles in the water break the silence. But around a bend, about a mile downstream from Bladensburg, urban life encroaches: Cars and trucks barrel across a bridge that takes New York Avenue across the Anacostia, and a MARC train rushes commuters toward Union Station on the adjacent rail bridge.

“See that pipe under the bridge?” Mr. Connolly asks as we glide underneath. “Thousands of cars and trucks pass over that bridge every day and if each one leaks just a drop of oil … it all goes through that pipe directly into the river.”

The water that drips from our paddles glistens in the sunlight, and a hand dipped into the water scoops up crystal-clear water, but Mr. Connolly cautions:

“Stick your paddle down. You can’t even see the end of it for all the sediment.”

n n n

The problem, he explains, can be summed up in two words: “people and pavement.”

Unlike the Potomac, which flows mainly through rural areas, the Anacostia is an urban river. Upstream, rampant development and acres of parking lots prevent runoff from being absorbed by soil and vegetation. An old and leaky sewer system in Prince George’s County adds to the problem.

And in the old part of the District, including the area around the river, the sewers and storm drains are combined. When there’s even half an inch of rainfall, the overflow goes right into the river.

The trash creates visual pollution, and the nutrients in the sewage produce “alga blooms.” Fed by these nutrients, algae grow rampantly, then die. As the algae decompose, they eat up the oxygen in the river. The result is fish kills.

But progress is being made, and hope for the future is high, Mr. Connolly says.

For example, as a result of legal action by AWS and others, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which operates the Maryland sewers, has agreed to take several steps to keep sewage out of the creeks and the river.

Among other things, the agency will accelerate the repair and replacement of leaky pipes and step up inspections of restaurants, which dump grease down drains and clog pipes.

In the District, AWS has proposed million-gallon underground storage tanks near the river’s banks to handle the excess flow of sewage and storm water that accumulates in a heavy rain — which now goes straight into the river. After a storm, the overflow would be pumped back into the system to be processed at Blue Plains.

District officials are considering this plan, according to Mr. Connolly, and seeking federal funding for the $1.9 billion project.

In addition, AWS volunteers have removed a total of 526 tons of trash and 7,500 tires from the river since the group was founded in 1989.

There’s a green plastic bottle floating among the cattails, but relatively little flotsam mars the placid river and its pastoral banks.

“The river is looking incredibly clean today,” Mr. Connolly observes, “because we haven’t had much rain lately. After a big rain, it’s like a landfill on a conveyor belt going down to the Chesapeake Bay.

“With each rainstorm, sewage, toxins from sediment, pesticides and oil and grease from the cars spill into the river, creating a toxic soup.”

n n n

As we paddle past the National Arboretum, about two miles downstream from Bladensburg, Mr. Connolly notes that one particularly pungent pollution source has been removed: The Arboretum used to store elephant manure and other “zoo doo” along the river bank to use for its plantings. When AWS was founded, in 1989, one of its first acts was to persuade Arboretum officials to stop the practice, because the manure was leaching into the river.

Across the river from the Arboretum, we detour up a small creek adjacent to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, where water lilies grow in ponds of water from the Anacostia.

A man doing tai chi exercises on the bank shouts “Good morning” as we paddle into large, lake-like Kenilworth Marsh. In 1993, the Army Corps of Engineers restored this marsh, which had been drained in the 1920s because of a malaria scare. A boardwalk leads visitors from the Aquatic Gardens into the marsh, and large boxes on poles in the marsh provide housing for wood ducks.

Boxes on poles? “Wood ducks have talons on their webbed feet for climbing,” Mr. Agle explains. “They nest in trees.”

Back in the main river, we head upstream to return to Bladensburg. On the west bank, just above Dueling Creek, we stop to admire the intricate engineering of a beaver lodge and to see the tooth-sawn trees that were the source of the raw material.

“Beavers cut down trees to get materials to protect their young in the lodge from predators,” explains Mr. Agle.

Across the river from the beaver dam, the state of Maryland is about to start work on a wetlands restoration project, Mr. Connolly says. The land will be dug out and the existing vegetation replaced with wetland plants. Among the plants to be replaced are the ubiquitous turquoise-and-beige reeds called phragmites, which are not native to the river.

“When you bring in non-native plants and animals, you upset the balance of the river,” Mr. Connolly says. “Wetlands are the kidneys of the river. They clean it. If you lose wetlands, you lose that filter. Wetlands also provide a nursery for wildlife.”

As we approach the park’s boat landing, a mallard skims across the river, and an osprey takes off from its nest in a radio tower.

“The river is incredibly polluted but incredibly beautiful and, incredibly, there’s a lot of life here. Wildlife is resilient,” says Mr. Connolly, pointing his canoe toward the landing.

“We feel that people have a right to use public waters, that our rivers shouldn’t be in this condition. We want to encourage recreational use of the river and, in this way, encourage stewardship. The more people use and enjoy the river, the more advocates we’ll have for cleaning it up.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide