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Anacostia River improving in quality

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Posted on: December 14, 2023

BY SHAUN CHORNOBROFF

Even though the water quality of the Anacostia River received a failing grade and a lower score than last year’s, long-term trends suggest the water is steadily improving, according to the 2023 Anacostia River Report Card.

The 2023 report card, issued by the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), gave the river a 52% grade — a 3-point drop from 2022. It’s the third time in six years the river has received a failing grade.

“The water quality tends to improve or deteriorate year-to-year based on a variety of factors,” said Christopher Williams, the president and CEO of the AWS. “Even though we’ve had a failing grade in 2023, the overall trend is positive.”

Among the factors that cause yearly fluctuations are submerged aquatic vegetation and E. coli. Changes among the counts in these categories can result from a number of unpredictable environmental occurrences, including precipitation or even increased dog fur finding its way into the lake, according to Williams. 

“We don’t know what the factors are that can change these things from year to year; we just know from observation that they do,” Williams said. 

For the evaluation, the 9-mile river is divided into three sections: the Maryland Anacostia — the northernmost section — the Upper D.C. Anacostia and the Lower D.C. Anacostia — the southernmost section of the river. Each section received a failing grade in the 2023 report. 

The report evaluates a number of components, including dissolved oxygen, water clarity and toxins. 

Trash was among the categories that showed a measured improvement in the annual report. Williams attributed this to the recent completion of a new sewage overflow system, which was part of DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project

The project started in 2018 and came about due to a lawsuit filed in 2000 by a number of local environmental groups, including the AWS. A September DCist article suggested that the sewage system would cut overflows by 98%. 

“One of the side benefits of those tunnels is they catch a lot of trash, as well as keeping the sewage from overflowing into the river,” Williams said. 

A train derailment at 1:39 a.m. on Sept. 23 saw an estimated 16 railcars and one locomotive go off the tracks near Baltimore Avenue, as well as plastic pellets, or nurdles, scattered into the nearby area.  

Williams said, on Dec. 5, that, despite the derailment happening about a third of a mile from the river’s tributaries, there had been no reported observations of the pellets seeping into the Anacostia. 

“We were keeping our eye out after the derailment happened because we were worried about that,” said Williams. “But it doesn’t seem like much got into the river.”

Despite the river’s failing grade, the AWS is still making progress towards its goal of ensuring the Anacostia is fully swimmable and fishable in the future, according to Williams. 

However, the presence of industrial chemicals and heavy metals, which are harmful to fish, means the river won’t be fishable for a longer period of time and would require an extensive cleanup project, Williams said. He defines a fishable body of water as one in which people can catch fish and eat them without concerns for their safety.

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