- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

The wide, tree-lined river is calm and slow-flowing. A slight breeze blows, and overhead are swallows, geese, kingfishers, herons and ospreys. It’s a very peaceful scene but for the honking geese.

Where is this tranquil natural setting? The Anacostia River.

How can that be? Isn’t that the “forgotten river,” full of old tires, “Anacostia jellyfish” (read: condoms), styrofoam cups and cancerous catfish?

Well, yes, all that is true, too. But along certain stretches of the river — particularly those close to Bladensburg — floating debris and other signs of the area’s encroaching 5 million people aren’t very evident.

“The river is a tremendous, free resource to people who live here and to tourists,” says Nancy Stoner, a lawyer and clean-water advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national nonprofit environmental group with more than 1.2 million members.

“And look at the wildlife. It’s so rich. There are eagles and herons. … If we can have that kind of wildlife on an urban river that’s completely polluted, imagine what it would be like if the river were clean.”

A lot of people don’t want just to imagine it. Local government, environmental groups and even developers are working toward the goal of not only cleaning the river, but making it fishable and swimmable.

It’s been done in other capital cities; in Stockholm, for example, downtown residents can swim in most any lake or river in and around the city.

“It wasn’t always like that. In the 1950s, we had fish advisories and were told not to swim,” says Karin Widemark, technical attache at the Embassy of Sweden.

During the 1960s, the sewer systems were upgraded, and by the early 1970s, the water in and around the city was clean enough for swimming, she says.

“It’s amazing how fast the recovery was,” Ms. Widemark says. “Nature has a remarkable ability to heal itself.”

To Ursula Carpenter, who frequently paddles dragon boats — Chinese-style 20-person crew boats — on the Anacostia, this seems like a tall, but desirable, order here in the District.

“I remember when I first started and people asked, ‘Do you want to paddle and get sick?’ because of the health risks associated with the water,” says Ms. Carpenter, who will be competing in the Washington DC Dragon Boat Festival this weekend in Georgetown. “Those are pretty stark terms.”

Ms. Carpenter says her “first instinct was to run,” but her love of boating won out. Now she’s on the river three times a week along with her crew mates.

“It’s such a wonderful way to get away right in the middle of the city,” she says, and adds that she always washes her hands and face after paddling.

So what’s so dangerous about the river? What are the pollutants?

“The main one is bacteria,” says Hamid Karimi, deputy director at the District Department of Environment. “If it’s above a certain level, you don’t want to get water into your nose and eyes. It can cause infections.”

When it rains, the level of bacteria in the river rises dramatically because the District, like many other older cities, has a combined sewer overflow system, says Mr. Karimi, who holds a doctorate in plant biology. This means that when it rains hard, the sewer system quickly reaches its capacity, and raw sewage is pumped along with storm water — you guessed it — straight into the river.

That’s not all. The Anacostia also is home to excessive amounts of heavy metals, which primarily settle into river-bottom sediments. This means bottom-feeding fish, such as bullheads and catfish, are extra susceptible to contamination.

“I think it’s something like 60 percent of the catfish have cancers,” says Robert Boone, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, a nonprofit environmental organization that is working to protect and restore the river and its watershed. “A lot of people catch and release, but to some, the fish they get from the river is an important source of protein.”

Mr. Boone says new immigrants from South America who are used to being able to eat their catch from nearby rivers are particularly likely to eat anything they catch in the Anacostia.

According to Mr. Karimi, heavy metals found in the sediment and fish include zinc, lead, aluminum and mercury. The heavy metals come from several sources, including parking lots, train tracks and illegal dumping. The fact that the Anacostia is a very slow-moving river and doesn’t flush itself doesn’t help. (It takes 40 days for a drop of water to go from Bladensburg in Northeast to Haines Point in Southwest.)

It doesn’t seem that we’re terribly close to achieving the goal of a swimmable, fishable river.

“With a massive amount of attention and funding and political will, it would take no more than three to four years,” Mr. Boone says while acknowledging that it likely will take much longer.

Others agree that the goal is reachable, but they won’t present a definite timeline.

“When will it become swimmable? I can’t speculate,” says Jon Capacasa, director for the EPA Water Protection Division, which includes the Anacostia River.

However, he says, a lot of progress has been made in the past few years.

“It’s still a very degraded river, but we’re seeing fish come back,” Mr. Capacasa says.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a local nonprofit environmental group, also reports progress. The group rates local waterways and last year gave the Anacostia a slightly higher grade than the year before.

Another bright spot is the progress in wetlands restoration that has taken place in the past decade, Mr. Capacasa says.

“I would say it’s one of the key progress points,” he says.

Wetlands are important because they line the river and work as a filtration system for all water and pollution that enters the river, he says. The wetland plants — often wild rice — trap the junk and then over time break down the impurities.

“The wetlands are nature’s sponge,” Mr. Capacasa says, adding that about 100 acres of Anacostia wetlands have been restored in the past few years.

Another point of progress is that the District Water and Sewer Authority has agreed to correct over time the sewage overflow problem. A 40 percent improvement is expected to be seen by 2010, Mr. Capacasa says, adding that Maryland — in which about 85 percent of the Anacostia watershed is located — also is mandated to clean up its sewage issues, such as leaking pipes.

Other areas of progress, Mr. Capacasa says, is green building design, which is becoming more common. As an example, he cites the Department of Transportation building in Southwest, which has grasses and plants covering the roof, helping to trap and filter water instead of sending it down the gutters and over paved streets, where it picks up pollutants, and ultimately into storm-water drains that empty into the Anacostia.

“There’s a lot of connection between what happens on land and what happens in the Anacostia,” Mr. Capacasa says. “What we do on land can stem the flow of pollutants that go into the river.”

Planting trees, for example, makes a big difference to river water quality, Mr. Boone says. Evidently, large tree canopies help shatter and disperse large raindrops (which helps cool the air) instead of the heavy drops hitting and flooding the pavement.

The Anacostia Waterfront Corp., a major developer with contracts to develop large portions of the Anacostia waterfront, has as one of its goals incorporating strict green-building standards. Another portion of its mission is to create increased access to the river.

“We’re creating a pedestrian-oriented development where you actually bring people to the water,” says Calvin Gladney, vice president of the AWC, which is developing about 2,800 acres along the Anacostia. The development will include new parks, trails and — again — the goal of restoring the Anacostia River.

Bringing people to the river will help them realize what a treasure it is, Mr. Gladney says.

“The river is not going to be forgotten,” he says. “It’s going to be a place where people want to go…. It’ll be the ‘remembered river.’ ”

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