This Article Originally Appeared on Greater Greater Washington The Anacostia River is polluted, but cleaning it up is hard because DC and Montgomery and Prince George's counties are all responsible for it. But the three are working together to change that.
In October, leaders from each jurisdiction signed the Anacostia Accord, a formal commitment to support one another's efforts to work with regional businesses, individuals, and organizations to find ways to clean up the entire length of the Anacostia (and to keep it clean). It will mean sharing best practices, working on region-wide legislation, and making sure the way each calculates pollution reduction is consistent with the others.
Trash in the Anacostia has long been a problem
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, uncontrolled tobacco farming in Prince George’s and Montgomery caused the once-navigable river to fill in with sediment, choking off the prosperous port at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac. More recently, when DC expanded its tax on plastic bags, a lack of similar measures throughout in other jurisdictions reduced the impact of this policy.
When trash gets into aquatic ecosystems, it’s a problem not only because it causes direct damage to the organisms living there, but also because it will continue to do so as it decomposes in the future. The Anacostia has been clogged with trash for much of the past century, and it makes its way into the river at an alarming rate to this day.
Unfortunately, a lack of coordination and long term planning between DC, Maryland, and Virginia has prevented any of the jurisdictions from making meaningful cleanup efforts across the entire watershed.
Recent cleanup efforts have made progress
In the past decade, individual regulations in DC and elsewhere have been targeted at large sources of pollution. The effort has largely been successful, greatly reducing the presence of single items or categories of litter like plastic bags or styrofoam in the in the river.
DC’s plastic bag tax was one such effort. Since the city started charging a five cent fee for plastic bags in stores in 2010, DC residents report using 60% fewer bags per week. The legislation has also raised millions each year for environmental education as well as further cleanup efforts.
Also, in 2011, the EPA and a number of regional organizations advocating for stricter enforcement of the Clean Water Act in the tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, including the Anacostia, reached a settlement with the District and Maryland Department of the Environment that establish limits on how much trash can be in the river (known more formally as total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs).
This settlement established federal requirements to reduce the amount of trash and pollutants in the river while also creating a system for tracking and monitoring progress; in other words, DC and Maryland had to take action to clean up the Anacostia.
Removing litter was at the top of the list, and in 2011, Policymakers settled on a bold plan to deploy the first bandalong trash trap in the country, located in Kenilworth Park, along the Watts Branch tributary. This trash traps and the data it provided led to further-developed regulations like— DC’s styrofoam ban, for example— that have prevented thousands of tons of trash from reaching the Anacostia.
The Anacostia Accord should be another step forward
The Accord will expand efforts to remove trash entering the river by adding more traps throughout the entire watershed; there are already plans for new traps in Prince George’s and Montgomery, and DC is set to install two. These systems will not only remove tons of litter each year, providing an immediate practical benefit, but they will also supply the raw data on the sources of trash that can be reduced or eliminated through further legislative or regulatory action.
Already, the data gathered from existing and new trash traps has galvanized support behind efforts to target plastic bottles in the Anacostia, the largest single source of trash still entering the river. If the number of bottles drops similarly to plastic bags and styrofoam, the Anacostia will be much closer to fulfilling federal requirements to reduce trash.
And while the Accord doesn’t actually obligate the jurisdictions to enact the same regulations, it does require that relevant agencies— DC’s Department of Energy and the Environment and Prince George’s Department of the Environment, for example— to consult with their partners across the other jurisdictions in order to hit the required TMDL numbers.
Finally, the Anacostia Accord will establish a forum for the important public and private actors to work toward common solutions to environmental problems across the entire length of the river.
Since eighty-five percent of the watershed is located in Maryland but the largest part of the tidal Anacostia is in the District, the river has a way of connecting Prince George’s and Montgomery with DC that rivals even Metro. Just as the river flows from one jurisdiction to another, so must the regulations, tools, and funds required to clean it up. The Anacostia Accord reflects a commitment to making this happen..
“What it does is pull the jurisdictions out of their silos as it relates to issues facing the watershed,” says Dennis Chestnut, the Executive Director of Groundwork Anacostia. “The Chesapeake Bay is not going to be cleaned up without this regional focus by jurisdictions where everything flows into the bay.”
The Accord also aligns with the committed goals of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust to transform the Anacostia River Corridor into a place that unites the nation’s capital with surrounding communities as well as the natural environment.
The Anacostia Accord goes a long way toward forcing the different agencies responsible for ensuring the river meets the limits of the Clean Water Act to work together. It’d be great to see even more ambitious legislation in the future, but the Accord is a great step toward achieving the dream of a trash-free Anacostia Watershed, Potomac Watershed and Chesapeake Bay a reality.
By Keenan Orfalea