Thanksgiving Photo Blog

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It’s near the end of fall in the watershed, a good time to reflect on cycles of life and how we fit in to the larger ecosystem. There is much to be thankful for. Almost a century ago, a few visionary people advocated for parks like the US Arboretum and the Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens, both on the banks of the Anacostia, to make some space for birds, trees and people where they could take a break from the engines of industry. Over the years these places have only improved as the trees and wetlands cleaned the air and water and people worked to protect and restore the river. We have a long way to go, and reminders of our ongoing challenges linger. But, for the ability to take a walk beneath trees in a watershed alive with countless forms of biological life, that is something to be thankful for.

The good work of government

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On the banks of the Anacostia River today I was reminded of the good work that can be done when government works well. The kind of work that we will need to continue if we are going to fulfill the promise of this iconic river.

At Bladensburg Waterfront Park, a gathering of cabinet secretaries, a governor, a senator, mayors, a county executive, federal agency chiefs and many residents and local river advocates gathered to dedicate the official opening of the Maryland portion of the Anacostia River Trail. This portion of the trail winds through forest and field at the river’s edge, connecting the northwest and northeast branch trails with the main branch trail that will ultimately run through Washington DC.

It may seem like a small, though beautiful thing–the trail at this point is only a few miles long. But really, beauty is never small. And in this case it represents something much larger. A connection–a connection between Maryland, Prince George’s County and Washington D.C. A connection and hopefully a commitment to the promise of the Anacostia. This river has for so long been seen and treated as a failure, or ignored as a problem too big to solve or perhaps not worth solving. But the trail represents in some ways a new day. As Senator Ben Cardin said at the dedication, this is about building a relationship with this river–people are more likely to care for something if they have a relationship with it. This is true for the Anacostia as it is for all rivers, forests, wildlife and wild lands all across the country. For too long we have seen these things as commodities, at best, or not seen them at all. But they are critical to whatever future we may build in this country. As Governor Martin O’Malley said, the trees, the river, the air, they are our allies for the future, and it is time to start building the relationships that will encourage all people to care about what happens to them.

There is much animosity, much maligning of government on the federal level. There are those who hound on the notion that government is bad and only people who complain and criticize the government are to be trusted. But the fact is, some of the greatest things we have accomplished together have been done collectively, through the government.

It is not the idea of government that is the problem, but rather the goals we set for government. Sometime in the recent past a plan was set in motion to connect the Anacostia Watershed and all its jurisdictions and residents with a pathway where nature and humans can walk, ride or rest in balance, connected. This trail and what it represents, and all of those on the local, state and federal level  who celebrated the Anacostia Trail today show that when government works well, it can serve the people, respect the natural environment, and rebuild lost connections to benefit our collective quality of life.

New Bike Path Segment Opens

The Washington D.C. metro region in general is a pretty good place for off-road bike trails. And one of the newest stretches of trail increases public access to the Anacostia River. The Anacostia Trail runs south from the convergence of the Northwest and Northeast Branch Trails in Prince George’s County, and eventually is meant to continue all the way into downtown D.C. While D.C. has had some setbacks in getting the city portion of this trail finished, Maryland just finished the last bit of the state portion of the trail. The newest segment is one of the best, comprised of a boardwalk trail that begins behind the Bladensburg Waterfront Park and runs for a few miles toward the D.C.-Maryland dividing line. In addition to increasing access to some of the more natural portions of the Anacostia, this segment brings the region closer to the ultimate goal of connecting the metropolitan region and its rivers through off-road bike access. Thanks Maryland, a great addition to the trail system, and a great link between the community and the river.

Rediscovering the Anacostia–repost from July 2010

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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.

Lessons from Lake Erie

Traveling the Anacostia  river by kayak through the mist of a summer dawn,  it becomes suddenly apparent what we are working for on the Chesapeake Bay Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE): Why I got up at 4:30am to meet Lee Cain of the Anacostia Watershed Society for a paddle through the quiet tree lined waters of a still sleeping Washington DC; Why 8 photographers of the International League of Conservation Photographers are working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to bring the troubled waters of the Chesapeake watershed before the US Congress.

The reason is this: a sleeping beaver floating on the still water’s surface, a great blue heron running across the water en route to the sky, a great egret shrouded in the rainbow mist of the rising sun, a DC resident out for a morning paddle and rare moment of quiet. This is a river much forgotten, but it is not lost. The Anacostia and its wild creatures and plants are just waiting for the kind of attention and care that decades ago saved a great lake from death and ignited a national consciousness of the essential need for clean water.

Over the course of this project I had a conversation with a woman who remembered fishing on Lake Erie as a child with her family. She also remembered the day they stopped visiting Erie, and her mom’s explanations as to why. “The lake is sick. We can’t eat the fish there anymore.” That was back in the 1970s when Lake Erie was widely considered  biologically dead. So famous was the demise of this lake that it earned a place in a Dr. Seuss story the Lorax.

You’re glumping the pond where the hummingfish hummed.

No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed!

So I’m sending them off: oh, their future is dreary!

They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary,

in search of some water that isn’t so smeary –

I hear things are just as bad up at Lake Erie!

Lake Erie and its watershed became a wake up call for a generation. It inspired songs like REM’s Cuyahoga, about the Erie feeder river that caught fire several times in the late 1960s. A Time magazine article described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows” where a person “does not drown but decays.”

All this attention for the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie led to a piece of legislation at the heart of the Chesapeake RAVE, The Clean Water Act of 1972. Thanks to this law, the Erie of the 70s is on the mend. It is not healed, but it is healing. And that is what we hope can happen for the Anacostia River and the entire Chesapeake watershed—if we can just get people to pay attention and spare some care for these waters.

If everyone could spend a quiet morning gliding through the forested stretches of this river, I’m sure we could find the resolve to work with corporations and municipalities to responsibly protect our waters. Not everyone can make this morning journey, but everyone can take steps to help the river and the bay.

NOTE: This is a repost from a blog I wrote in July 2010 during the Chesapeake Bay RAVE with the International League of Conservation Photographers.

The Anacostia Plunge

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A couple of weeks ago, a group of people waded into the Anacostia River. They were civic leaders, river supporters and children. Some wore rubber boots and waded in ankle-deep; some wore protective clothing and waded to their waists; one local mayor wore a business suit, and one brave soul  did a cannonball off the dock in his street clothes. But they were all trying to make the same point for the Anacostia Watershed Society: We ought to be able to swim in our river.  Right now we can’t, not legally or reasonably. The city of Washington DC considers it against the law to swim in the river, for public health reasons. And given the collection of toxins and bacteria that we have unleashed upon these waters, they are right to do so. Fishing or swimming in this river is taking your life in your hands. Heavy metal and carcinogen counts are high in most river fish and people have been known to encounter life-threatening bacteria after a swim in the Anacostia.  The event, organized by AWS, was meant to do two things: to highlight the unhealthy state of the river, and to reclaim our right to healthy waters. This is our river after all. And on a 100 degree summer day, how nice would it be to take the plunge.

Thanks Anacostia Watershed Society for your leadership, and thanks to all those who took the Anacostia Plunge

Miracle River

I met a man a few weeks back on a bridge over the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River. He was in his early 70s, and missing a few teeth but not shy to smile when he told me, “This river is a miracle!”

I had been walking along the foot/bike path that lines the northwest branch through most of its Maryland run, and tossing some things over in my mind. I’ve spent much of the last 5 years working on a project that documents the impacts of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, on wildlife, the land and the people of the borderlands. Through this project I came to realize just what I want my working life to be about–helping the general public understand the environmental consequences of our actions, particularly on poorly understood and politically difficult issues. Rather than just take a few photos for a magazine story, I want to devote months, years even to using every avenue I can think of to change outcomes–or at least try. As I was walking along the northwest branch, I was thinking that it was time to expand my work, not to stop working on the borderlands, but to start another project, one closer to home. I was considering working to highlight the plight of my home river, when I met the “miracle man” and he made my decision.

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“I’ve visited this river almost every day for my entire life,” he said to me. “I am so blessed to have it in my life.”

I thought right then, what if everyone felt this way about our river? Would we have tapestries of trash clogging our streams? Would we have silt clouding the water, making it difficult for fish to breathe? Would we have piled concrete, rocks, invasive species and toxins at the banks of our river? Would it be illegal to swim in the Anacostia because it is so polluted?

I know people who care about our river as much as the miracle man, and who are working every day to try and bring it back to life. And in fact, their work has done wonders. It truly is miraculous that this river, with all it has suffered from pollution to neglect, is still so alive with life.

My new project is to do whatever I can to help those who are helping the Anacostia. For starters, I’m going to spend some time with my river every day for the next year and a half. I’ll be posting blogs regularly, taking photos and documenting what happens to the river day by day.

I initially became interested in documenting the river, a waterway less than a half-mile from my home, through a project of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and International League of Conservation Photographers last summer, called the Chesapeake RAVE. As a member of the ILCP, I was tasked with photographing the Anacostia, Potomac and James River for a few weeks, in hopes that we could help pass stronger legislation protecting the Chesapeake watershed. I will take that work as a jumping off point and hone in on the river in my backyard.

We all have to care for our own.