BLADENSBURG, Md. – The Anacostia River is dirty, polluted and sometimes smells from the raw sewage carried in its mocha-colored water, but people have not lost hope for it.
Last Saturday more than 1,800 volunteers celebrated Earth Day early by pulling at least 40 tons of trash from the river, much of it washed downstream from tributaries in Maryland.
The Anacostia River watershed is roughly 175 square miles and reaches up into Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Only about 20 percent of it is within the District of Columbia.
“Every time it rains … you get a conveyer belt of trash,” said Steven Reynolds, communications director for the sponsor, Anacostia Watershed Society.
That trash then flows into the Potomac River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay and finally the Atlantic Ocean. Only about 10 percent of trash in the river actually ends up on the shoreline, said Robert Boone, society founder.
On Saturday, volunteers in canoes and on boats moved from bank to bank filling trash bags with filth.
Plastic bags, water bottles, beer cans, tires, raw sewage and polychlorinated biphenyls all flow in the eight-mile river, which begins in Bladensburg and ends in Washington.
It’s not safe to swim in because of the high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, said Masaya Maeda, society water quality specialist. Fish caught there are best thrown back.
Society President Jim Foster said the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has improved its stormwater system, reducing by 40 percent what he said was 2 billion gallons of raw sewage spewing into the river annually.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the water and sewer agency in Montgomery and Prince George counties, has been going pipe by pipe repairing storm water and sewer lines that are in some cases 100 years old, Foster said.
Both system improvements resulted from consent decrees in lawsuits filed by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
Sedimentation is another problem for the river. Foster said it’s caused by soil erosion and the development of land that used to be wetlands.
Parts of the Anacostia Watershed, he said, are 50 percent impervious, meaning that rainwater is unable to soak into the ground. Pavement, sidewalks and roofs create a barrier between rainwater and the ground, forcing the water into the river, instead of allowing it to trickle through the soil along with the pollutants and sediments.
Bladensburg Water Park, at the head of the river, reached depths up to 40 feet in colonial times and served as a major shipping thoroughfare. The average depth is now only 3 to 4 feet, Reynolds said.
Sediment makes it difficult for aquatic vegetation to grow on the bottom, because it blocks sunlight. Anything that does take hold is quickly buried by more sediment, Foster said.
He touted the success of a non-native plant, hydrilla, in filtering the water of the Potomac. He said the plant has provided excellent habitat for underwater species in the Potomac River and helped create a thriving bass fishery in the D.C. region.
“When you see guys in bass boats, you know the water is clean,” Foster said.
While the idea of a bass tournament is a long way off in the Anacostia, Boone said he has seen dramatic changes in community involvement since he founded the society almost 20 years ago.
In 1989, the first cleanup he organized had 12 volunteers.
This year, Boone sees familiar faces from past efforts combing the banks and piling trash into the borrowed canoes and boats.
“It gives a sense of hope to people,” he said. “It’s not all just going down the drain.”
Trash, he added, is a “psychological toxin. You see a trashed area and you want to get away from it, and you want to stay away from it, and you don’t want (anything) to do with it.”
Volunteer Dylan Ubaldo, 18, from Frederick, said he expected to collect three bags of trash from the river.
“We went out there, and we ended up filling, like, 10 or 15 bags,” Ubaldo said. “A lot of the spots you’d get to and it was just devastating, because it was bottles upon bottles, plastic bags, everything, just filled up. It’s just disgusting.”
Amanda Anderson, 19, a University of Maryland sophomore, said even though the effort may appear futile, she enjoyed pitching in to help the environment.
Cleaning the river is part of the Anacostia Watershed Society’s strategy to reconnect it to the community. The goal is that by bringing people to the river, they will be more likely to use it and in turn become more invested in its future.
“If we can get rid of the visual blight on the river, we can get people to buy into the larger possibilities that this river offers,” said society Executive Director James Connolly. “But if it looks bad, people are gonna want to stay away from it.”
The society works through politics. It endorsed a 5-cent tax on customer bags at grocery stores, liquor stores, food vendors, drug stores and the like in the District of Columbia. Four of the 5 cents would fund Anacostia River clean up, while the remainder would go to the stores.
The bill was co-introduced Feb. 17 by every council member except for Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, and is under review in two committees.
If passed by the council, the bill would have to be signed by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and approved by Congress.
Whether the bill passes, the Anacostia Watershed Society will still be there to clean up what others throw away.
Foster said that even though pollution per capita is down, the influx of new people to the watershed area is creating more urgency.
“It’s an urban river. It’s gonna be urban warfare to get it cleaned up.”