Saving Washington’s Forgotten River

For many Washingtonians, the Potomac River is a symbol of patriotic charm and serene beauty. Slicing through two states, it’s the envy of both Marylanders and Virginians, who still carry on a century-old legal battle over which state can have "control" of the river.

The Anacostia River in Washington, DC suffered from decades of neglect.©PAUL BOWLING/LONESOME PINE PHOTO

Sadly, the affluence of the Potomac has overshadowed its little sister tributary, the Anacostia River. Until a decade ago, the Anacostia watershed was treated shabbily, much like the predominantly low-income, African-American community surrounding its eastern banks.

The grassroots Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) and the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice are trying to change that. Since 1989, AWS has built grassroots interest and, most importantly, educated the population about keeping pollution, debris and toxins out of the watershed.

"AWS organizes volunteer trash cleanups, riverbank replantings and storm drain stenciling [to let people know where their waste water goes]," says Jim Connolly, AWS" executive director. "We also conduct environmental education programs."

The Appleseed Center has an Anacostia Watershed project team, composed of local and national legal and environmental experts, including representatives from area law firms. "We’ve secured Congressional sponsorship and anticipate introducing legislation this term," says Grace Lopes, managing director of DC Appleseed.

The community has proven itself to be more than receptive to these preservation efforts. Since 1989, AWS has worked with more than 30,000 volunteers to remove almost 500 tons of trash from the river, including 7,000 tires. With the clean-up efforts, the watershed is finally coming back to life, and wildlife is returning to the area.

But even with all the increasing awareness and improvements, residents and activists both agree there is still plenty of work to be done. "Their efforts are great but it’s just not happening fast enough," says Pia Perry, a member of Bethel Christian Fellowship, a local church.

"There’s strong interest among Washingtonians in seeing Anacostia restored," says Connolly. "Awareness of this once-forgotten river is growing."