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In March, a sign of the improving health of the Anacostia River appeared in the form of a bald eagle nest at the National Arboretum. It was the first time in 70 years a pair of eagles nested at the site, located along the banks of the Anacostia River.

Over the past couple of decades, the District has worked toward improving the health of the Anacostia through city agencies like the Department of the Environment and partnerships with groups like Earth Conservation Corps, Groundwork Anacostia, and the Anacostia Watershed Society. The river’s degradation began in the 1700s when white settlers brought with them unsustainable tobacco farming and continued into the 1950s when “population growth, industrial pollution, an open dump, and urban disinvestment had all but destroyed” the river, according to AWS. By the 1970s,  96 percent of the Anacostia tidal wetlands had been ruined.

Animal tales from the District
  • The RescuerAs D.C.’s only urban search and rescue dog readies for retirement, the city prepares to devote even more resources to the program.
  • Heron ThereBlack-crowned night-herons are beloved—but uninvited—guests at the National Zoo.
  • Cat WomanKanchan Singh prepares to open D.C.’s first cat cafe.
  • Gone to the DogsThe arms race to lure well-heeled pet owners to luxury apartments
  • Wild ThingsEagles and other wildlife are returning to the District as the health of the Anacostia improves.
  • Man’s Best Friend ForeverThe Washington Humane Society wants to keep pets in D.C. homes, one neighborhood at a time.

Since 2011, AWS has released a yearly report card that grades the Anacostia and D.C. in areas like water quality, toxics, trash, and overall commitment to the river. All but three categories received Fs in the 2014 State of the River report, although more than half were described as “improving.” 

Trash, like plastic bags and bottles, remains a problem. “When we started 26 years ago, it was not uncommon to get trucks and cars, microwaves and refrigerators from the mud,” says AWS Natural Resources Specialist Jorge A. Bogantes Montero. Between 1989 and 2014, AWS removed 1,095 tons of trash and 10,870 tires from the watershed.

But “there are some things that have improved, some water quality variables,” he explains. Poor water quality, according to DDOE, is believed to be the main reason why eagles abandoned an arboretum nest in 1947; the return indicates the water has improved enough to sustain the amount of fish needed to feed the raptors living at three different D.C. nests. 

Osprey are also among the 120 species of birds identified along the Anacostia this year alone; ten species of frogs and salamanders have been spotted, as well. Indeed, some types of wildlife are thriving near the Anacostia, partially because of better protections put in place on a local, regional, and national level. 

“Juveniles that were not surviving 30 to 40 years ago are now surviving and finding a viable habitat in the District,” says Bryan King of DDOE. That includes the gray fox, which, using nighttime cameras, the agency has spotted near the Anacostia.

In the river itself, Eastern Floater Mussels, “which are known to be very resistant to some types of pollution,” have been observed in large numbers, according to Bogantes Montero.“Mussels are very, well they are not as sexy as bald eagles, but they are a great species in the aquatic ecosystems because they are filter feeders so they pretty much help clean the water, and that’s a great thing for the river.”

Also not sexy: the American shad. But King points to DDOE’s restoration program focused on the river herring as a major victory. “We release approximately one million American shad each year,” he says. “They are caught in our facility, tagged with a chemical, and released into the Anacostia.” For the first time since the program began in the late ‘90s, 10 percent of the fish released last year were spawned in the District.

“As the river gets cleaner, we should see increased populations of many species, and the ones that are there already should get healthier,” says Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. “For example, the rate of tumors in bullhead catfish in the Anacostia, a frequently cited indicator of the health of the river, has begun to decrease in recent years.”

The future of the Anacostia’s wildlife depends on partnerships with both the local and federal government, King says, as well as the continued protection of certain wildlife areas. “In order to keep these trends moving upward, then we can’t accept that these animals are starting to return in some cases,” King says. “We can’t say that our work is done.” 

Photo by Darrow Montgomery