I’ve lived in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for more than 10 years. I’ve hiked many of the mountains, hills and fields that drain into the Bay, and paddled some of its tributaries. I’ve even paddled the same stretch of the Anacostia River I was on today. But I’ve never seen it quite like this.
My assignment on the Chesapeake Bay RAVE is to document the challenges that the Washington DC metro area poses to the Bay. The issues are many and complex— in some ways it’s hard to even begin to understand the magnitude of the impact that DC’s 5 million people have on the Bay. My job here is not just to try to understand it, but to make images of it that tell the story for others.
So I asked my neighbor and friend, Brent Bolin, who works for the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), if he could show me the Anacostia River, and help explain what is going on here. We started in Bladensburg, Maryland, at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park which by itself tells an important story about how intense human population and industry have altered what was once a natural watershed system. This spot, which sits about a mile from my house, marks the historic location of a busy deepwater port. In colonial times, Anacostia River depths reached 40 feet, making it possible for huge ships to travel here. Today, due to deforestation upstream, siltflows into the river have drastically altered it. At low tide it is now possible to walk across the river in Bladensburg. And in the riverbed and floating upon shallow waters, a relief map of decades of pollution is drawn.
Once out on the river in a pontoon boat, floatillas of garbage and oil slicks greeted us. I’ve been on this river in a canoe before, but somehow the magnitude of the distress this river is under did not hit me. The Anacostia is notorious around here. It’s fish are not edible due to chemical contaminants. Swimming is officially discouraged due to fecal and other pollution. But because I had never turned my eye to the sad state of the Anacostia, I didn’t realize just how beaten down this waterway really is. And the sight of it strikes me hard. How is it possible that a society, the nation’s capitol no less, will allow things to get this bad? That we will destroy our children’s ability to swim in a clean, safe river; our own ability to go fishing and eat what we catch; even just the ability to paddle a canoe in waters not littered with garbage. Somewhere along the way, this city ceased caring about these things, about the Anacostia itself.
Gladly, not everyone stopped caring.
There are those, like Brent at the watershed society and many others who are working hard to return the river to what it once was. Regular river clean-up days and educational outreach by individuals and organizations are pecking away at the indifference that has degraded the river.
Brent showed me the wetlands that people have been working to restore and explained that even when money and expertise are focused on rebuilding lost wetlands, it is not always simple here. A population of non-migratory Canada geese see to that. The geese were introduced long ago in order to provide a game species for hunters. The hunters stopped hunting as this area urbanized, but the geese remained. Now their population is so high and omnipresent, that the minute people finish planting a wetland restoration project, the geese move in and mow down the plants. We saw hundreds of geese along the riverbank and in the shadow of the Pepco power plant in Washington DC. We also saw a man who had made his home on the river, in a shack perched precariously at the edge of the water, with all his belongings stacked in piles in the vegetation beneath his makeshift roof. Not far from there, Brent pointed out an outflow location where in heavy storms a combination of raw sewage and stormwater flowed directly into the river. And upstream from there, a man was standing waist deep in murky water, washing his face. It was almost too much to take in, too much information about a river that helps make up the very character of the city I call home, but which until now I barely knew.
Hopefully for the city at large, a consciousness is slowly building. It will take time, but if people could just see the potential of the river, could experience the sight of osprey fishing and great blue heron standing silently along the banks, could remember a time when it was possible to jump into a river on a hot summers day, there would be hope for restoring this treasure to the people and to the wildlife. Every step forward can make a difference: from picking up garbage you see in your neighborhood (and which ultimately ends up in storm drains that flow into the river), to conserving water use in your home, to planting a native garden rather than a lawn; and of course letting your elected officials know that you care about the Anacostia and the Chesapeake.