One afternoon a couple years ago, I was running along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail between the vast asphalt sea of parking lots surrounding RFK Stadium and a grass and wooded buffer along the river. A bald eagle caught my eye. I stopped to marvel as it scanned the turbid water for fish. A man approached. “Is it safe here?” he asked.

“Look at that bald eagle!” I responded.

Glancing up, he again asked, “Sure, but is it safe to be here?”

“Yeah.  I’m comfortable running alone.”

“It just doesn’t seem right. Look at all this trash,” he insisted, gesturing at the parking lot and trail littered with broken glass and refuse. “This is not how we treat rivers where I’m from.”

The exchange illustrates so much of what has been accomplished but also remaining obstacles for the river flowing through the nation’s capital. The eagles’ return is the result of both federal actions under the Endangered Species Act and efforts of local groups like Earth Conservation Corps who constructed nests along the Anacostia. Much progress has been made since that day to limit trash. The District of Columbia and Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, the three local jurisdictions that the Anacostia watershed falls within, have led efforts along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Maryland to reduce trash entering the river. Just last month, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker signed the Anacostia River Accord, renewing their commitment to a trash free Anacostia. Organizations including Groundwork Anacostia River DC, Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, Earth Conservation Corps, Alice Ferguson Foundation and Living Classrooms have not just advocated for but also rolled up their sleeves and removed, sorted and documented thousands of tons of trash. The District and Montgomery County instituted plastic bag fees, and all three jurisdictions passed styrofoam bans in 2015.

The two counties and the District also boast some of the strongest stormwater management programs in the country, championing innovative public-private partnerships and market-based solutions. The regional water utility DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project will reduce raw sewage overflows into the Anacostia 81% by 2018 and 98% by 2023. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, District of Columbia and Maryland have established Total Maximum Daily Load cleanup plans to cap pollution entering the Anacostia at sustainable levels, and the District and National Park Service are analyzing and developing a strategy to address toxic contaminants in the river.

Yet challenges remain. In much of the watershed, polluted stormwater runoff from paved surfaces still enters the Anacostia and its tributaries untreated, causing harmful erosion along the way. Fish from the river are not safe to eat. Swaths of the waterfront, much of which is public land, harbor contamination stemming from past uses that must be cleaned up or contained before improvements can occur. A highway and freight line bisect neighborhoods to the east of the Anacostia, exacerbating access to key services as well as the river. These same neighborhoods have the highest unemployment, poverty and obesity rates in the city.

Since becoming the Anacostia Ambassador in May, I have met a vast array of partners working in and around the Anacostia, evaluated opportunities to leverage private capital to reduce pollution, and convened local and national organizations around planning efforts to cleanup and reuse contaminated brownfields sites. I look forward to continuing efforts to connect citizens to the Anacostia, implement projects on federal lands that will measurably improve water quality, and increase the resilience of vulnerable populations in the watershed to climate change impacts.

Students paddle together as part of Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile
Students paddle together as part of Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile

There are certainly days when these challenges seem daunting, but also many moments of hope and inspiration. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to join Wilderness Inquiry’s Canoemobile on the Anacostia River and paddle with 4th- and 5th-grade students from 3 local schools. The children also learned about water quality, local wildlife, and impacts of pollution from the National Park Service, National Park Trust and Izaak Walton League. Most of the students I spoke to had never been in a canoe before, and some had never been on any boat. A few had not visited the Anacostia River despite living within a mile. Being on the water that sunny November day, they saw that ducks float and cormorants dive. They hypothesized why dissolved oxygen levels might vary within a water body and empathized with how hard it is for a frog to escape the impacts of toxic contaminants. They sang; they cheered for one another; they sat quietly and let the sounds of the river seep in. They learned how much faster a boat travels when everyone paddles together. We ran out of time at the waterfront park to hear every child’s favorite part of the day, but their teachers assured me they would continue to talk and write about it. I hope they do, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with the groups that volunteered that day and other partners in youth outreach on how we can increase the number of students participating in activities on the river and create pipelines of opportunity for future studies and careers.

A close friend of mine told me, “We don’t save the Earth. The Earth saves us.” On a warm, fall day surrounded by smiling children, the restorative power of a river is tangible. Yet I’d argue that this relationship goes both ways. There is a small army of dedicated citizens, organizations and agencies ready to make the Anacostia and its surrounding lands a recreational, ecological and socioeconomic treasure for the region. I am honored to be part of the effort to realize this dream.

Article and Photos Courtesy of Katherine Antos