On Thursday January 11th at 11:00 AM, the DC Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee will hold a public hearing on the Sense of the Council declaring 2018 the Year of the Anacostia Resolution of 2017, PR22-449, and on the Anacostia Sediment Remediation Project. Interested persons should be able to watch the hearing live here or here. Reprinted below is Executive Director Doug Siglin’s complete written statement.

 

Chairwoman Cheh and committee members, I appreciate this opportunity to speak with you today. I serve as the executive director of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust, a nonprofit incubated by the Federal City Council and spun off to be a separate nonprofit in 2015. As you may know, we have a distinguished board of directors led by former Mayor Anthony Williams, who has a long history of involvement with the Anacostia River and its waterfront.

A BIT OF HISTORY

First, I want to thank you for sponsoring and moving the Year of the Anacostia resolution. The resolution includes several findings, but at its heart is the Centennial of Anacostia Park, an outstanding asset for the District with enormous but largely unrealized potential. Few people understand this, but the Anacostia waterfront’s public parkland, featuring 15 miles of riverfront shoreline, is larger than New York City’s Central Park, Chicago’s lakefront Lincoln Park, and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Anacostia Water Park was first proposed in 1902 by the Senate Park (McMillan) Commission. The Commission’s idea was to dam the Anacostia River at the Massachusetts Avenue crossing and create a recreational lake surrounded by meadows and playing fields. The concept proved to be impractical, and the dam was never built. However, from 1911 to 1941, contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers moved thousands of tons of mud to remake the wide, slow Anacostia within the District’s borders into a channelized waterway between stone walls, with elevated dry banks and numerous islands, including what we now call Kingman and Heritage Islands. It is hard to imagine doing something on the scale of this 30-year re-engineering project today. Before the project was suspended by World War II, the Corps had created more than 1500 acres of new dry land from what had previously been natural wetlands and marshes.

On August 31, 1918 Congress passed an appropriations bill mandating that all the land that had been created by the Corps’ contractors, as well as that yet to be created, would be henceforth known as Anacostia Park, a part of the DC park system. But it is one thing to designate a park, and another to outfit and program it. The Corps got to work requesting annual appropriations from Congress and building amenities, including the handsome Georgian building that today houses the locker rooms for the Anacostia Pool, to host recreational programs. In the early 1930s, the entire DC park system, including Anacostia Park, was transferred to the National Park Service. There have been periods when the National Park Service has invested in the park’s programs and infrastructure, notably during the “Summer in the Parks” 50 years ago and during the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. But in recent years the National Park Service’s infrastructure maintenance needs have mushroomed while its budgets have shrunk, and Anacostia Park hasn’t been much of a priority. With the exception of the DOT-funded walking and bike trail opened last year, the last major investment was more than four decades ago.

A RETURN ON OUR CLEAN WATER INVESTMENT

Since the Civil War, the Anacostia River has been overloaded with sewage and pollution from street runoff. Today, primarily because of the federal Clean Water Act, DC taxpayers and ratepayers are paying billions of dollars to remediate the Anacostia’s sewage, toxics, and stormwater, and to restore some semblance of its biological integrity. This spring, DC Water is scheduled to complete the Anacostia Tunnel, which is the most significant Anacostia pollution-reduction project in history, substantially reducing bacteria from human and animal waste in the river and making it much safer for recreation. As you know, the details of how to pay the debt service for the project are still the source of controversy. But my main point is that DC residents will pay billions for this and other projects to improve the river.

It seems to me that an important question for DC elected officials is how the District’s residents can get a good return on their enormous investment in improving the Anacostia. I would suggest that an important part of the answer lies in using the Anacostia and its extensive riverside public parklands to host far more community-serving programs than we have today.

The flagship urban parks I cite above, and dozens of others around the nation and the world, are programmatically active in a way that we can only dream of along the Anacostia. They host educational, recreational, health-oriented, cultural, and skills training programs for local residents, many of which are designed to promote greater equity. Many feature amenities that attract visitors with disposable income, opening the way for local residents to earn income by entrepreneurially providing food and other services. Obviously, given the troubling disparities between incomes, health measures and other social indicators between the western and eastern sides of DC, well-run programs like these along the river that has historically divided us would be valuable.

In May 2015, The Urban Institute produced a paper entitled “Anacostia Park: Background, Potential Community Benefits, and Preliminary Neighborhood Needs” where it highlighted fifteen community-serving programs that could be emulated here. Just to flag one, the Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation in Boston utilizes National Park Service properties to provide young people ages 14-18 with hands-on field experiences in tree care. The program offers summer work opportunities, as well as learning experiences throughout the school year. Participants work with program staff to explore opportunities for education and career placement in fields such as arboriculture, park management, and the environment, as well as participate in a series of workshops to learn about tree biology and management techniques. Mentors include skilled arborists and experienced resource managers.

Locally, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Living Classrooms Foundation, the Alice Ferguson Foundation and several other nonprofits offer environmental education experiences to students, and several nonprofits offer health-oriented programming that could easily be expanded to serve more clients. There is a vast and growing body of research demonstrating how such outdoor experiences enhances people’s cognitive, as well as social and emotional well-being.

PROGRAM GRANTS TO ACTIVATE THE WATERFRONT

If one accepts the proposition that activating and better utilizing the Anacostia parklands is how the District can get return on our residents’ massive investments in improving the river, then the practical question is the best way to make that happen. Whereas most cities can control what happens on their waterfront public lands, the District cannot. Most of our public Anacostia waterfront land – particularly on the east side of the river – is managed by the National Park Service on behalf of the federal government. The National Park Service simply does not have the funds to provide much in the way of programs. But under the terms of its new management plan, there is no reason that additional programs could not flourish, if they are done in accordance with the relevant permits, rules, and regulations.

Last October, 63 nonprofit organizations joined together to co-sign a letter to Mayor Bowser, asking her “to create a grant program to support nonprofit groups willing and able to do events, programming, and educational activities for children and adults on the Anacostia waterfront.” This followed on an August letter from four members of the DC Council asking one of the Deputy Mayors to “identify—by reprogramming funds if necessary—and solicit proposals for at least $1 million in funding…for an initiative, led by a coalition of nonprofit organizations, to celebrate the Year of the Anacostia.”

Creating a competitive grant program to assist experienced nonprofit groups to provide valuable programs on the waterfront to children and adults is a practical and compelling way to achieve this goal. This is especially true if the grant program is implemented in a way similar to the City Innovation Fund that was created in 2013 and is managed by the Greater Washington Community Foundation under the terms of an Memorandum of Understanding. The arrangement has admirably served the purpose of getting funds to nonprofits to support public policy goals without political interference. As you know from the testimony at a recent hearing in the Committee of the Whole, the City Innovation Fund appears to be a success and is being reauthorized, extended, and refunded now with full Council support.

I certainly hope that the Mayor will respond to the requests for implementation grant funding during this Year of the Anacostia so that we might get additional activation of the waterfront park this summer. But regardless, the idea of a grant program for nonprofits to activate this extraordinary resource has a lot to recommend it, and perhaps should be the subject of a legislative initiative if the Mayor chooses not to act.

KINGMAN ISLAND NATURE EDUCATION INFRASTRUCTURE

One of two parts of the Anacostia public waterfront that the District does control—with important limitations—is Kingman and Heritage Islands. I understand that Mayor Bowser will make an announcement tomorrow that may involve requesting capital budget funding for the environmental education plan that the Council asked the Department of Energy and Environment to produce in the 2016 Budget Support Act. If so, this is outstanding news, and I strongly encourage you to support FY2019 capital funding to implement the Kingman Island plan, as well as to ramp up support other necessary activities to preserve and enhance the natural values of the islands. As Pastor Keith Kitchen from the Zion Baptist Church of Eastland Gardens and I wrote in an op-ed published in the Post last October, “[t]he symbolism of doing something important for our children’s future in the middle of the river that has long divided our city is unmistakable. So is the importance of working on a project that can unite us all in these disturbing times.”

At the same time, I want to urge that the District proceed cautiously, with full recognition of the provisions of the 1996 federal law, as amended in 2010, that transferred the islands to the District, including its reversionary clause. The District does not have an entirely free hand here, and the path to gaining the necessary approvals from NCPC and other federal agencies to develop the islands is likely to have bumps and turns. I am also aware that there may be local philanthropists and sponsors interested in supporting aspects of the project, and private contributions need to be both encouraged and well-coordinated with public expenditures. My suggestion would be for a dedicated staff person in a single agency to take the lead role in moving this project forward, and I think that the DOEE is in the best position to do that.

Notwithstanding the long path ahead, it is great to get a plan for improvement of Kingman and Heritage Islands back on the District’s agenda. Maybe in this Year of the Anacostia we can finally implement this modest, yet very important plan, for the District’s kids.

AMENDMENT SUGGESTION

On a technical note, I would respectfully ask you to consider a small amendment to the second clause of section 3 as you mark up PR22-449. Please consider adding the words “education, health and cultural events programming” between “recreation” and “within.” The sentence would then read “The District of Columbia government should identify resources and policies that create opportunities for recreation, education, health and cultural events programming within the Anacostia watershed, ensure sustainable development on and along the Anacostia River, and continue improvements to the water quality of the Anacostia River.” While I appreciate that recreation, sustainable development and water quality are essential, the broader language would recognize the value of the other programs that I’ve discussed.

ANACOSTIA RIVER SEDIMENT PROJECT

Finally, I want to comment on the Anacostia River sediment remediation project. I have been personally involved in the issues surrounding the toxic sediment since participating in the Anacostia Watershed Toxics Alliance convened by EPA and the Navy in 1999. AWTA did good work collaboratively developing hard data, creating models, and subsequently producing a detailed, 90-page document called “Charting a Course Toward Restoration: A Toxic Chemical Management Strategy for the Anacostia River”. Years later, I organized the United for a Healthy Anacostia River coalition of several advocacy organizations to push for the project to characterize and eventually remediate the toxic sediments consistent with CERCLA.

The sediment toxic remediation project is extremely important to the healthy future of the Anacostia waterfront, and this committee deserves kudos for pushing and facilitating this work over the past five years. You have provided ample funding, required implementation timetables, and set an aggressive deadline for the Record of Decision in the Budget Support Emergency Act of 2014 over Mayor Gray’s objection. It was especially helpful last year that you were able to provide more funds than Mayor Bowser requested for in the Capital Budget’s Hazardous Materials Remediation project. Your steadfast support has been essential.

I also want to recognize Director Wells and his staff for how they have approached the Anacostia sediment remediation project. Mayor Williams co-chairs the formal committee of stakeholders called the Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and I assist him with it. I can say without reservation that Director Wells and his professional staff are carrying out the project with exemplary transparency and collaboration with stakeholders. It is my perception that they have inspired a good deal of confidence in the stakeholder group that they are committed to doing the project right.

In 2013 and early 2014 I was proud to have been an advocate for a legislated deadline for the Record of Decision, and I supported this committee’s decision to set a June 30th, 2018 date. At that time, the date seemed more than reasonable, as the then-DOEE Director had testified to this committee in 2013 that a ROD would take no longer than two years to produce. There is no doubt that the deadline has been helpful in pushing the process forward. However, we now understand that the project was more complex than we imagined, particularly in the extra effort it takes to do it in full coordination with the National Park Service. It seems that there is just too much left to do to finish by the June 30th date, so I support amending the legislated deadline as DOEE requests. But I also encourage you to continue a set a firm deadline for the project, and more importantly, to do all you can to ensure that we get full implementation of the remediation plan while we are still here to enjoy it, including accepting and paying for whatever liability the District is eventually determined to have as a Potentially Responsible Party.

I would also urge you to closely monitor and fully support two other toxic remediation projects on the waterfront with long-term implications for the economic development of Wards 7 and 8 – Kenilworth North and Poplar Point. Both of these properties were Congressionally directed over a decade ago to transfer from the National Park Service to the District when certain conditions were met. They have both been on a very slow track since. But the potential of these nearly 200 acres of waterfront property to the District is huge, and we need to approach both the remediation and re-use planning for these parcels with energy and determination.

In closing, I just want to reiterate that the Anacostia River and the Anacostia public waterfront are extraordinary assets for the District of Columbia. As we celebrate the Year of the Anacostia and look forward to the second hundred years and beyond, I hope and trust that the Council will continue to provide the means to take full advantage of these outstanding resources.