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The Anacostia River is full of crap. So is anybody who tells you it’s D.C.’s next great attraction.
The wide-open eyes on the kids’ faces tell it all. There they are, on the mud flats of the Anacostia River, in their Nike gym shoes and Earth Conservation Corps T-shirts, passing around wiry little red maple saplings that they’ll plant on the sandy embankment.
An aroma of decaying fish, decades’ worth of accumulated sediment, and God knows what else gives out the first sensory impression of the skanky job that lies before them. But at least these seventh-graders from Edison Friendship Public Charter School are out of class, in the gathering warmth of a sunny spring Thursday morning. “It’s fun, once you get them motivated,” says Corps chaperone Oneida Bailey.
Part of the fun is also getting mug time on camera with Mayor Anthony A. Williams, perhaps the only guy in town who would wear a bow tie to a tree planting in the swampy lagoon known as Kingman Lake. Like the tie, the kids are an Earth Day prop for Williams: One connotes mayoral seriousness, the other youthful idealism. Together, the logic goes, they’ll plant trees, redevelop riverfronts, and otherwise battle centuries of environmental neglect along the Anacostia.
The kids may be young enough to believe that, but the mayor should know better. Of course, nothing marks Tony Williams as a D.C. greenhorn as much as his public paeans to the muddy little river that cuts across the city’s eastern half. Long before Williams moved here—for that matter, long before Williams’ grandparents were born—locals followed their noses to a definitive conclusion about the Anacostia: It stinks. It’s not a neglected local version of Monet’s Seine; it’s a neglected local version of Dukakis’ Boston Harbor.
Locals have also long known that this ecological disaster has currents of race and class in it as well. “It’s a troubled river, politically and environmentally,” says local historian C.R. Gibbs, who lives near the river on Capitol Hill. “Historically, it’s always acted as a physical barrier. It still represents a promise yet to be fulfilled.” And because D.C.’s antiquated sewer system dumps gallons and gallons of waste into the river whenever it storms, that promise is pretty likely to stay unfulfilled no matter what Williams plants on the shore.
But the logic of history is easy to deny when politics are at stake. For Williams, the restoration project is a partial down payment on a promise he made during a very public canoe trip on the Anacostia in July 1998. That improbable outing—the first major event of Williams’ mayoral campaign— made the Anacostia a centerpiece of his economic development and environmental strategy.
This spring, the mayor took a few steps toward the goal. In another policy announcement from the deck of a boat—the Washington Navy Yard’s U.S.S. Barry—Williams and a gaggle of federal officials outlined a $25 million agreement to create a grand waterfront on the Anacostia. They talked about new trails, job and recreation sites, tourist amenities, even a waterside shopping mall.
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That vision of the future may have looked nice from the boat, but it doesn’t seem quite as promising from beside the discharge pipe at the O Street pump station, one of about 20 places where raw sewage from D.C. sometimes overflows into the Anacostia. When it rains, storm water pouring into the city’s sewer system combines with sewage headed for the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Facility, pushing millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Anacostia. There, it mixes with water already polluted with runoff from roads and urban development farther upstream in Maryland.
The result is the Anacostia River as we know it today: a cauldron of floating turds, dead fish, and beer cans. And no matter how many Hard Rock Cafes we build, or how many seedlings our teenagers plant, D.C. will still be left with the primary culprit: Washington’s decrepit sewer system. That’s why some folks wonder about a missing guest at the scene out on Kingman Lake: Though federal and local officials representing a jumble of agencies vied for space at the podium, nobody from the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) took part in the ceremony.
Robert Boone, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, was Williams’ 1998 canoe guide. He was also one of the people out at the tree planting at Kingman Lake.
“This is what you do after you clean up the river,” he says. “You celebrate. You landscape the shore and put up outdoor restaurants with umbrellas. But all the economic development in the world isn’t going to help if you’ve got turds floating down the river. They’re skipping over the hard part. They’re going straight for the dessert, without eating the spinach.”
That’s not to say that dessert is bad. The plantings—viewed by Ethel Kennedy and an array of other dignitaries from the 17th hole of the Langston Golf Course along Benning Road NE—represent a $5 million collaboration between the city, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore 41 acres of wetlands with 186,000 cubic yards of dredge material and 700,000 native wetland plants.
The whole process reverses an ill-considered effort 70 years ago to dredge the marsh and create a lake for city residents. Removing wetlands, it turned out, removed the river’s natural filters. Hence the new plantings, one of 14 planned restoration projects on the Anacostia. “If we want the Anacostia back,” Williams said, standing on the 17th hole, “we have to start with our wetlands.”
But in the back of a lot of people’s minds—including Williams’—it ought to be clear that it will take more than dredging and planting new trees to yank the Anacostia off every list of “most polluted” rivers in the nation. It’s no secret that the industrial-strength environmental damage to the Anacostia, a murky, slow-moving tidal estuary even in its most pristine state, has a lot more to do with sewer pipes than with wetlands.
“We’re talking doo-doo in the river,” says Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth, one of several environmental groups suing WASA and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for stronger anti-pollution measures. “We’re talking turds and condoms in the water. And I don’t see millions of dollars out there going into water quality. Who’s going to open up a [proposed National] Harbor-type place when it smells like a sewer?”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of fish were killed off last June after a particularly hard rain raised the river’s fecal coliform bacteria levels to lethal heights, according to D.C. Health Department records. What’s more, on any given day, much of the offending fecal matter is presumed to be flushed down from the very halls of Congress where environmentalists find so little support for funding to eliminate sewage overflows on the Anacostia. Indeed, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House all shit on the Anacostia.
“It’s totally unacceptable to be dumping raw sewage into rivers and lakes in this day and age, especially in the nation’s capital,” says David Baron, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which is handling the litigation against the EPA and WASA.
In fact, though, it’s always been accepted. And, for the time being, there’s nothing illegal about it.
Williams’ canoe ride may not have motivated the bureaucracy, but there’s nothing like legal action to prod a government reaction. The Health Department and the EPA are currently working on tighter water quality standards, and settlement talks are now under way to reduce sewer discharges.
But even as Williams was out on the river planting trees and conjuring shopping promenades, some members of the D.C. Council were looking for the $942,000 that they had been told would be in the mayor’s 2001 budget to study pollution sources on the Anacostia. The $942,000 allocation, however, didn’t materialize when the budget came down. “Unfortunately, the mayor did not put the money where his mouth is,” chortles At-Large Republican D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz. The money was later restored by At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, ending a crisis that mayoral staffers dismissed as an unintentional oversight.
The funding snafu also came just as WASA was unveiling a new trash-netting system at the end of one of its pipes on the Anacostia. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was accompanied by a reminder to city residents that they can help by “not littering public streets.”
Trash-netting might do a lot for the look of the river, critics say, but not for its bacteria count. “It’s like a strainer,” says Elizabeth Berry of the D.C. Environmental Network. “It’s negligible.”
Still, for a river that’s long been a dumping ground, other environmentalists are happy to claim even cosmetic victories. “It doesn’t change the science of the river, but it changes the psychology,” Boone says. “If the river looks hopeless, you’ll never have the political constituency to clean it up.”
The constituency most city officials have in mind, of course, is the federal government, which occupies about 40 percent of the land—and perhaps the same percentage of bathroom space—that flushes into the river. Bohlen and others have called for the federal government to “pay its fair share” to fix the city’s ancient sewer system. D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, meanwhile, is trying to secure more federal matching funds for financing wastewater treatment projects in the city.
Among those in Congress who watch these things closely is California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a San Diego Republican and former Vietnam flying ace who lives on a houseboat in the Washington Channel. Cunningham sometimes rides his jet boat up the Anacostia, but he says, “You wouldn’t want to put your toe in the river.”
Nevertheless, you won’t see Cunningham pushing to spend tax money tackling the river’s stench. Although he believes the feds owe it to the city to help fix the sewage-overflow problem, he sees it falling behind “other priorities, like education.” In other words: Tell the oxygen-depleted bottom feeders they’ll have to hold their collective breath a little while longer.
And whether the congressional till is in Republican, Democratic, or even Green Party hands, the real solution looks even tougher once you consider the cost. A modern sewer separation system that would send storm water one way and sewage another—that’s how it’s done in the modern world—would be a billion-dollar project and would dig up city streets like nothing since the Metro was built.
What might be in the cards are upgraded pipes, pumps, and storage tanks that can handle rainy-day sewage overflow and pipe it down to Blue Plains, which has plenty of extra treatment capacity. Back-of-the-envelope cost calculations for such a project range only in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even with federal help, of course, “some pain will be involved,” says a source in the mayor’s office.
Theodore Gordon, the Health Department’s senior deputy director for operations, says a variety of sewer engineering alternatives are being studied, with the aim of making the Anacostia “fishable and swimmable” by 2010. “If we can get a handle on the combined sewer overflows,” he says, “the river is on the way to cleaning itself.” Gordon says environmentalist critics ought to cast their minds back to before Williams took office, in 1999. “Before he came along, nobody had put $5 million into the Anacostia,” he says.
Boone thinks the mayor is sincere about cleaning up the Anacostia before another 100 years passes by. But given the river’s last 200 years of history, he, too, qualifies his remarks. “I don’t have a problem with the Williams administration, but we do need to get our priorities adjusted,” he says. “You don’t get many media people when you’re talking about removing fecal matter from the water.” CP