Bay Journal

Passing health grade still out of reach for Anacostia River

Potomac tributary gets failing water quality scores for third year in row

  • By Whitney Pipkin on June 29, 2016
The Pepco Benning Road power plant, pictured here along the Anacostia River in the summer of 2014, was demolished that fall, but it is still one of several industrial plants suspected of contributing pollution to the river.  (Dave Harp)

The Anacostia River may no longer be “forgotten,” but it is still extremely degraded, according to a report released Wednesday by the Anacostia Watershed Society.

The Society’s annual report card handed the river that runs through Maryland and the District of Columbia a failing grade for the third year in a row, despite incremental improvements. The river also earned an F letter grade in 2010 but saw enough improvements in the following year to garner a C- in 2011. No report was issued for the interim years.

The river is getting more attention and is the subject of costly research to study whether its toxic sediment can be removed or contained. But the uptick in awareness doesn’t necessarily translate to improvements right away, said Jim Foster, the watershed society president.

“It’s tough when you don’t grade on a curve,” Foster said. “We are doing so much better than we have in the past, but the way the numbers roll out we still aren’t in the passing grade territory. I really think that’s going to change quickly.”

The AWS produced the report using the EcoCheck ecosystem assessment system developed by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which is also used to grade the health of the Chesapeake Bay and several of its tributaries.

The Anacostia River saw slight improvements in almost all of the measures of its health over the past year, including an increase in water clarity and the presence of submerged aquatic vegetation, though the amount of dissolved oxygen available to fish, shellfish and other aquatic life still “needs attention,” the report states.

And then there are the factors that continue to plague the river’s urban watershed: namely trash, toxics and high volumes of stormwater runoff. The volume of water washing pollutants from the surrounding developed areas into the river was the only condition the report said was still “degrading.”

Developers and city planners have only recently begun to prioritize efforts to control runoff rather than convey it quickly to the nearest waterway. The cities in the Anacostia watershed have embraced so-called green infrastructure projects such as rain gardens and bioretention ponds, which advocates believe should help reduce runoff over time.

A half-dozen trash traps at several places along the river already catch and remove items before they form “trash islands,” and Foster said additional traps are in the works. Programs like DC’s plastic bag tax and a ban on polystyrene in Prince George’s County, MD, which takes effect July 1, can help reduce the volume of trash headed to the river as well, he said.

Toxics continuing to leach from the river’s bottom and industrial facilities along its shores are trickier to address, but the District has undertaken to identify toxic “hot spots” and determine the best way to deal with them. The city’s water utility is also in the process of building expansive tunnels to capture sewage overflow during heavy rains, which by 2022 are expected to prevent untreated human waste from routinely being dumped in the river. 

That’s one of the reasons Foster said he still thinks, despite failing report cards, that the river could be on track to meet his organization’s goal of making it fishable and swimmable by 2025.

Read the report card here.

 

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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