“The river was seen as a vein of Mother Earth; it was salty, like blood, and it tasted like blood,” says Gabrielle Tayac, a Piscataway Indian (the closest descendants the Nacotchtanks have left) and historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “It was part of the living system.”
In June 1608, John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac and its eastern branch, what would become known as the Anacostia. Buffered by thick forests, the Anacostia was 40 feet deep as far north as what is now Bladensburg, and Smith marveled at its clarity.
Then the Europeans put a crushing end to this Edenic idyll. By the time of the Civil War, the Anacostia was nearly a dead thing. And then it got worse.
There’s lots more, like the story of one the country’s oldest black yacht clubs, and the young people who work to clean up the river. And it reminds me of the more pragmatic look Alex Baca took at the state of the river earlier this year:
Sure, it’s common knowledge that the Anacostia is in bad shape. But the report—a joint effort between the Anacostia Watershed Society and the office of the Anacostia Riverkeeper that will be repeated yearly from now on—makes it clear just how unhealthy the river actually is.
The report contains a Water Quality Report Card and a Political Report Card. The former rates dissolved oxygen, fecal bacteria, water clarity, and chlorophyll in three separate portions of the river (Maryland and upper and lower D.C.); the latter, whether or not jurisdictions surrounding the river are making good strides in environmental policy. (Though a political report card that included a section on fecal bacteria might not be a bad idea.)
Some highlights: Montgomery County has stormwater regulations and has clearly stated an improved Anacostia River is desirable, but Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland do not have stable stormwater ordinances and have not expressed interest in cleaning up the river. D.C. has passed the bag tax, but has stalled on cleaning up known toxic sites like Poplar Point. It’ll take 4,063 years for water clarity to improve in the upper D.C. portion of the Anacostia, and 55 for fecal bacteria to no longer be in issue in the Maryland portion.