The Anacostia River is increasingly getting better press, and more and more DC residents are beginning to recognize and celebrate the river as a vast and beautiful shared public amenity. The positive evolution of conventional wisdom around the river is decades in the making, and several “watershed” (get it?) milestones are approaching that will significantly change the river—and perhaps how we think about it.

2018 is going to be a year full of these milestones. It will be the 100th anniversary of the federal law that set aside most of the Anacostia waterfront as a resource for the public, the 200th Anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birthday (the “Lion of the Anacostia”) and the 50th Anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Recognizing these anniversaries and sensing forward momentum, the DC Council recently introduced a resolution to declare 2018 “the Year of the Anacostia.” Several groups, including the Anacostia Waterfront Trust and the National Park Service among many others, are working together to plan a yearlong celebration and public invitation to engage in ongoing activities and progress along the Anacostia River and its surroundings.

The Year of the Anacostia: Cleaning It Up

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Part of the significance of 2018 is the progress that will be made on several cleanup projects, including two major projects: the Anacostia River Tunnel Project and the Anacostia River Sediment Project.

The Anacostia River Tunnel Project is part of the Clean Rivers Project, DC Water’s ongoing program to reduce combined sewer overflow into the Anacostia River and other waterways. The project is a massive infrastructure program designed to capture outfalls that exceed the capacity of the current system and convey them to Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant for treatment and discharge back into the Potomac River.

Part of this effort, the first leg of the Tunnel Project is scheduled to be placed in operation by March 23, 2018. This will reduce the amount of sewage flowing in the Anacostia by 82%, and the entire project will reduce overflow volume by 98% when fully completed in 2023.

Meanwhile, the Anacostia River Sediment Project, led by the District’s Department of Energy & Environment and the National Park Service, is an assessment of the extent of contamination in the sediment at the river’s bottom and will include plans to clean it up. Decades of industrial land use, urban and agricultural runoff and other sources of pollution have left toxic materials in the river bottom at certain locations. A proposed plan for addressing these toxins will be finalized next year, and it will probably include a mixture of dredging, capping and habitat reconstruction as preferred ways to restore the river bottom.

Even without these two big “overhauls,” the Anacostia River is much healthier now than it has been in decades past. At a recent stakeholder meeting, engineering consultants informed attendees that studies show few risks to swimmers associated with surface water quality anywhere in the river, except directly after rain events. The sediment at the bottom is a different story, but this makes the goal of a swimmable river—especially with the tunnel project on the horizon—seem very achievable.

The Year of the Anacostia: Having Fun

Regardless of the lingering pollution problems that will soon be addressed, residents of the District are increasingly taking advantage of what the river offers.

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Bill Matuszeski’s summer articles in the Hill Rag detail many of the destinations and activities along the river, including day hikes, bike trails, playgrounds, boat trips and fun events. The Anacostia Waterfront Trust’s “Waterfront Guide” celebrates and highlights some of the many activities available to residents and visitors.

(Did you know you can rent kayaks from both Bladensburg Waterfront Park and the Ballpark Boathouse? Did you know that you can take free summer boat tours of the river with the Anacostia Watershed Society and Anacostia Riverkeeper? Did you know there are free fishing events, free roller-skating and an amazing and expanding network of trails along the waterfront?)

At a time when activities like stand up paddleboarding on the Anacostia and “forest bathing” (look it up!) are joining the list of reasons to get outside on DC, the river is growing in popularity as a recreation destination. Bringing even more activity and momentum to the waterfront, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game is happening next July at Nationals Park.

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The Year of the Anacostia: Looking Forward

The positive change in tune about the Anacostia River might also due to more and more public discussion about the future of the waterfront. A master plan has been created for the future of Kingman Island, EventsDC has proposed a recreation complex at the current site of RFK stadium and Building Bridges Across the River is making progress toward its future 11th Street Bridge Park. The DC Office of Planning is preparing an updated progress report on the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, and earlier this year the National Park Service released a draft Management Plan for Anacostia Park (the largest park along the river by far).

Meanwhile, several potential development projects are moving forward in the neighborhoods adjacent to the river, including further growth in the Capitol Riverfront and Buzzard Point areas, the redevelopment of Hill East District and redevelopment of public housing at Barry Farm and Kenilworth Courts. In 2018, DC will hear back from Amazon about its bid to attract the online retailer to put its new headquarters on the Anacostia waterfront.

Some of the projects on the horizon along the Anacostia River corridor. 

The Year of the Anacostia: Creating our Future

As all of this momentum barrels forward, it is imperative to elevate discussions about how to make sure that existing and future amenities along the Anacostia corridor are equitably accessible to all residents.

The 11th Street Bridge Park’s Equitable Development Plan has set a precedent for including affordable housing, job creation and education in the conversation about excellent urban parks, and groups like the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative are exploring how investment in waterfront parks can be part and parcel with equitable neighborhood development.

The Anacostia River corridor can offer substantial benefits to people who live nearby, and the Year of the Anacostia provides an important opportunity to explore how residents might still afford to live nearby as continual improvements come downstream for the Anacostia River.