Calvert Hills Green Team tours the Anacostia River
By Melissa Ballard
The newly formed Calvert Hills Green Team enthusiastically embraced its early goal of increasing environmental awareness by inviting a group of 10 neighborhood residents on a tour of the Anacostia River. The Anacostia Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect and restore the river, described for us the interplay of stormwater runoff and water quality, and civic action and public policy, as we floated peacefully along the water.
Stormwater management is an ongoing challenge for College Park, particularly in the Calvert Hills neighborhood. More frequent and severe storms due to climate change are putting increasing pressure on aging and insufficient infrastructure. The resulting flooding significantly impacts residents’ safety and homes, and polluted runoff can find its way into Indian Creek and Paint Branch and then flow into the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River.
Our tour launched from Yards Marina, located in Yards Park, in the District. Robbie O’Donnell, Watershed Programs Manager for Anacostia Riverkeeper, took the group on an hour-long tour from the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge upriver to just past the John Phillips Sousa Bridge. The journey took us along Anacostia Park, a national park, which was created by filling in wetlands in the early 1900s.
High volumes of sewage in the Anacostia have led to laws against swimming and restrictions on fishing. The District has a combined sewer system, meaning that sewage and rainwater runoff flow together in the same pipes. Heavy rainfall often pushes beyond the capacity of old sewage systems — a challenge shared by many older urban communities. Sewage brings a mix of pollutants including bacteria, pesticides, heavy metals, other toxic substances and sediment that can have negative health impacts on humans, animals and plants. The river has been home to several toxic industrial sites over time, making cleanup an uphill battle.
Around 800,000 people live in the Anacostia Watershed, which spans 176 square miles across the District, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Communities of color and low income neighborhoods within the watershed are disproportionately impacted by the river’s contamination and the flooding that results from poor watershed management. Thanks to decades of work by neighborhood civic associations, conservation groups and advocacy organizations, there have been recent environmental successes along the Anacostia. According to the Anacostia Watershed Society’s 2021 State of the River Report Card, which tracks several indicators of water quality and remediation, the river “received a passing grade for the third time in four years with a score of 63%, tying the highest score to date, despite it being the 3rd wettest year on record.”
O’Donnell expects that within the next 5 to 10 years, the Anacostia River will be swimmable. A major driver in getting the Anacostia River swimmable sooner than later is that DC is currently adding significant capacity to its sewage system, which is expected to reduce overflow to the river by 98%. O’Donnell stressed the need for future urbanization efforts to take equitable and sustainable approaches to development, so that those who call the Anacostia Watershed home will not be displaced by gentrification.
During a post-tour wrapup, participants asked lingering questions and wanted to learn more about what College Park residents could do to help the restoration effort. The Green Team may organize a second field trip to explore the Anacostia River, further upstream, near Bladensburg, or to visit a water treatment plant to better understand how chemicals and bacteria are removed from our water.
Anacostia Riverkeeper regularly runs free boat tours, financially supported by the plastic bag fees charged by the District’s Department of Energy and the Environment. And most importantly, the organization’s advocacy and education efforts continue to protect and restore these waters, with the goal of making the Anacostia River swimmable and fishable for all. A number of local and national advocacy organizations — the Anacostia Watershed Society, Earthjustice, the Anacostia Waterfront trust and others — have joined Anacostia Riverkeeper in their work to preserve the river.