Friday, March 28, 2014

Cleaning up the Anacostia River

The three films we highlighted from the DC Environmental Film Festival over the last couple of weeks had one theme in common: the need to clean up the Anacostia River. The Anacostia Watershed Society has come a long way in the past 25 years in their goal to make the Anacostia fishable and swimmable, with help from many individuals and organizations. The river is now cleaner than it has been in generations. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

Kayaking Paddle Anacostia River
Kayaking the Anacostia near Bladensburg Riverfront Park
Photo credit: Mr. T in DC

Trash. The morning of Saturday April 5th is the Anacostia Watershed Society's 20th annual Earth Day trash-removal event. Last year, the cleanup removed 49 tons of trash from the river. Register here to help out.

Toxins. But the problem goes much deeper than trash. This year a new coalition, United for a Healthy Anacostia River, has formed to focus on cleaning up toxins from the bottom of the river.

Brown bullhead catfish with tumor
Photo credit: Fred Pinkney, USFWS
Old industrial sites along the river like the US Naval Weapons Factory, the Washington Gas and Light coal gasification plant, Pepco’s two generating stations, the city dump, and others have left a legacy of pollution. Fish in the river have a high rate of tumors thought to be caused by polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, which come from coal, oil and gasoline). But while the tumors are unsightly, it's the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that invisibly accumulate in the muscle tissue of fish and pose more of a health threat to humans. You can sign a petition to make cleaning up these toxins a top priority in DC.

Sewage. The toxins aren't all old. An estimated 2 billion gallons of untreated sewage mixed with stormwater flows into the Anacostia River each year as a result of antiquated sewer systems that overflow during storms (known as combined sewer overflows, or CSOs). This results in high levels of bacteria and other pathogens in the water, another thing making it unsafe to swim or fish in the Anacostia.

As a result of a lawsuit, DC Water is now building a huge system of 23-foot-wide tunnels that should keep most sewage out of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. In a fascinating article, the Washington Post called it "the most amazing and expensive construction project that no one will ever see." When you get your water bill, know that recent rate increases (and probably more in the future) are going to pay for this project. Here's a bit of a peek:

Runoff. Even when it doesn't combine with raw sewage, stormwater runoff can create problems as it picks up nasty chemicals from the streets and then crashes into local streams at concentrated points, causing erosion. If you're a homeowner, check out the programs in DC, Prince George's County, and Montgomery County that will give you rebates for doing things to keep more rainwater on your property and out of the street.

So, what do you think -- will we be able to swim and fish in the Anacostia in our lifetimes?