Anacostia River swimmers are in over their heads.
Every year, it seems, some city politico makes a big deal out of revitalizing the Anacostia River. In position papers and at budget hearings, pro-Anacostia buzzwords bubble to the surface. As a rule, the talk focuses on the “development potential” of the riverbank, along with the “wildlife” just waiting to be revived in this neglected ecosystem.
This year, though, the riparian rhetoric is rising to a new watermark. At a March 12 hearing on the annual budget of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz dared to discuss timelines for making the river “swimmable.”
“I really would like it to be within my lifetime, so it needs to be 15 years,” said Schwartz, 58, who also wants to be able to fish from the Anacostia’s banks. WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson had said at a November hearing that a 20-year timetable for decontamination would be more realistic.
The long recovery scenarios are driven by the river’s current condition. During storms, waste from the city’s sewer system flows into the Anacostia—a problem that WASA aims to fix with a $1.2 billion upgrade. George Washington University Professor Jerome Paulson, in a statement for Friends of the Earth (FOE), says that contaminants from outflows can cause skin irritation and bacterial and viral infections such as salmonellosis. And that pollution gets along just fine with the household trash and miscellany that people dump in the river. The Anacostia ranked 15th on conservation group American Rivers’ 1995 list of the nation’s most endangered rivers, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 2000 pledged to clean it up.
“I don’t even like doing those [trash-removal] cleanups,” says Chris Weiss, director of the FOE-spearheaded D.C. Environmental Network. “I’ve definitely got my gloves [on].”
But as Schwartz begins drumming up support for the 2017 Anacostia Triathlon, she might do well to consult with the folks who are already acting out her life’s ambition.
“I’ve lost my fear of the Anacostia,” says Duncan Spencer, who rows on the river with fellow members of the Capital Rowing Club.
Like many people who canoe, boat, or row on the Anacostia, Spencer has gotten water on his hands and arms. Like many of his fellow club members, he’s swum the river after falling out of a scull.
And, unlike many club members, he’s also been known to beat the heat by diving off the club’s dock under the 11th Street Bridge. If the river is good enough for herons and the American eagle, he reasons, it’s good enough for him.
Friends who may look on in horror merely “buy the company line that the Anacostia is filled with poisonous [materials],” says Spencer. He’s been hanging around the river since 1965, and he’s noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of wildlife in the area—he’s even had fish leap into his scull.
A while back, when Spencer lost his keys by the dock, he jumped in the water to find them. Undaunted, he spent 10 or 15 minutes diving around, groping at the bottom of the river. He found them, and he’s still alive.
Because there is no such thing as an Anacostia River Swim Club, the brave ranks of its bathers can be pieced together only through anecdotage. Anacostia Watershed Society Program Manager Joshua Ungar recalls guiding a pontoon boat of 11 first-graders and their teacher up the Anacostia last summer when, just south of Bladensburg, he saw three men swimming in the water. They wore no clothing and carried a fishing net that stretched about 15 feet across.
Now there’s Schwartz’s dream in action: People swimming and fishing at the same time!
Over the excited screams of the children, Ungar says, he asked the naked fishermen whether they’d caught anything. He tried to tell them that it really wasn’t safe to go swimming in the river, but they didn’t speak English and simply waved hello.
“I think every urban stream has an oral tradition of people having been able to or [who] did swim in it despite whatever pronouncements various health agencies may have [made],” says National Park Service Ranger David Murphy.
Anacostia Watershed Society President Robert Boone says that he’s heard that students at Anacostia High School swam in the river in the ’30s. But the official history of the river’s swimmability is scant. Murphy says that the Park Service has heard that the Anacostia used to be swimmable and that people would speak about having gone swimming there. But the organization has never documented where, or under what circumstances, bathing took place. There are no maps showing official beaches nor even notations of informal swimming holes.
Not that Murphy refutes people who claim to have dipped into the river. “If they remember swimming, they probably swam,” he says. “I’m sure there are people who jump into the water everywhere in the country. And God help them, because whether they should or shouldn’t is not part of what they’re thinking about.”
Hang out by the river long enough and sooner or later you’ll swim by accident. Anacostia Riverkeeper Damon Whitehead, who works for the White Plains, N.Y.-based Waterkeeper Alliance, cruises the river on an 18-foot outboard. Whitehead says a passenger once fell in after leaning over to retrieve a datebook that had fallen in. Ungar says he fell off Anacostia Watershed Society’s dock shortly after starting in July 1998. He headed home for a shower.
Even household cleaning chemicals could, over time, expose you to hazardous amounts of pollution, Ungar says. “For me, that’s how I rationalize being out there and [not] being afraid,” he says.
Ungar says he avoids touching his eyes when his hands and arms are wet and cleans up after he’s out of the boat and away from the water. Rather than warn schoolchildren about the water quality, he tells them not to be rowdy.
Whitehead says he’s had at least one cut—on his hand—that didn’t seem to heal right after contact with the river. Capital Rowing Club past President (and Anacostia Watershed Society Executive Director) Jim Connolly says that a rowing pal had to get antibiotics when a cut in her leg became infected.
And Ungar’s friends with the giant net weren’t doing themselves any favors by eating fish from the river: The D.C. Department of Health’s Web site warns against any consumption of bottom dwellers—catfish, carp, or eel. Other species, such as sunfish, are safe as long as you eat less than a half-pound each week.
If largemouth bass is more to your taste, you’ll have to limit yourself to one good dinner a month.
Ungar says that the anglers he speaks with don’t always know the health hazards. He wonders about the River Terrace man he’s seen plucking clams from the river during low tide—and who says he’s been at it for years. One fisherman tried to persuade Ungar that he could sidestep the health risks by soaking the day’s catch overnight in vinegar.
“Pollution adheres to the fat cells,” Ungar counters. “You can’t drain that out.” CP