Yards park on the Anacostia River.
Yards park on the Anacostia River.

Anacostia Park could better serve the needs of the surrounding community if it were easier to access and there were more to do there. Fixing it up could also help protect generations of District residents from the worst impacts of climate change.

Real environmental problems are on the horizon

The primary challenge that climate change will put in front of the District in coming decades will be the risk of flooding caused by both tides and storm water. DC will lead the East Coast in tidal floods by 2045, due to rising sea levels, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists released last year.

Large-scale projects such as seawalls are going up to protect DC's critical infrastructure, but smart growth and green infrastructure can often accomplish the same mission at a fraction of the cost.

In an attempt to clean up the Anacostia, DC has invested billions in a new storm water storage and treatment facility to capture overflow from the city's ageing sewage system. This system will be largely effective for everything but the most extreme weather events, but unfortunately, we're headed for more of those: Storms are predicted to increase in severity, if not frequency, because of climate change.

Parks and rain gardens can help with this problem because they absorb a lot of stormwater. More parks would make it less likely that DC's water treatment system gets overloaded.

RainPay Gardens
RainPay Gardens

What's more, expanding the stormwater storage and treatment system will likely be cost prohibitive for the foreseeable future. That means protecting existing green space like Anacostia Park, and finding new ways to replace impermeable surfaces with ecologically friendly alternatives like rain gardens can go a very long way in helping DC manage its stormwater.

Parks can help us address those problems

The parks and wetlands that line the Anacostia-- referred to by many as "green infrastructure"-- is the first line of defense against flooding and stormwater pollution. Collectively, these areas will save the city billions of dollars in damage from tidal floods alone by the middle of this century.

"As they wind their way toward the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers define the borders of Washington, D.C. and the many historic landmarks nearby, from Arlington National Cemetery to Old Town Alexandria, Va," reads the UCS survey. "Tides affect these rivers, and tidal flooding can produce effects ranging from patches of standing waters in parks to flooded roadways."

Parks can also provide other environmental lines of defense. For example, they bring down the "urban heat island" effect. Trees and plants in these areas can also act as a sink for carbon and other pollutants. These climatological advantages do not even begin to explore the social benefits to emotional and physical well being that comes from access to green space.

DC is working to prepare for coming risks

Investing in green infrastructure along the Anacostia Waterfront is the first and easiest step in confronting the environmental challenges that are predicted for the next century. Doing so doesn't require vast amounts of time or money or scarce resources in city government, but it does require commitment and creativity to execute effectively.

Hundreds of acres of impermeable parking lots surround RFK stadium, sending thousands of gallons of stormwater into the Anacostia with each rainfall and increasing the potential for flooding. Directing energy and funds towards underutilized, but strategically located areas along the Anacostia could be an ideal place to start.

In October, DC played host to mayors and city sustainability directors from around the world as part of the Our Cities, Our Climate international mayoral exchange, convened by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Michael Bloomberg.

"As the nation's capital, we will continue to lead the nation in green energy and sustainable practices." Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged, welcoming the attendees. "By taking bold and concrete steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, we will improve the long-term health of our community, while creating good paying jobs that build pathways to the middle class for our residents."

Mayor Bowser rightly credits DC for being one of the most progressive cities in the country when it comes to confronting the myriad challenges posed by a changing climate, but the magnitude of these problems will only continue to grow, along with the cost of inaction.

The District is presented with a unique opportunity to become more resilient by simply protecting existing park and marshland along the Anacostia, while looking for opportunities to expand such infrastructure wherever possible. If Mayor Bowser and the rest of city government champion this policy, it will greatly increase the region's resilience to climate change, whatever the future may hold.

By Keenan Orfalea

This article originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington