From the open deck of his boat to the insides of a courtroom, a new “riverkeeper” is aiming to help restore one of the Bay watershed’s most degraded rivers.
The new Anacostia Riverkeeper will be a full-time advocate for the river, aggressively seeking to reign in pollution while simultaneously working to engage the public by promoting cleanups and educational events.
“When we get people realizing this is the District’s river, and get them on the river and involved in its restoration, that will go a long ways toward its recovery,” said Damon Whitehead, who was named the Anacostia Riverkeeper. “The quality of life in our communities is measured by how well we take care of our natural resources.”
Riverkeepers — described as part investigator, scientist, lawyer, lobbyist and PR agent — originated in the United States in 1966 when a coalition of frustrated commercial and recreational fishermen mobilized to reclaim the Hudson River. They built a boat to patrol the river, and in 1983 hired a full-time riverkeeper who began filing lawsuits against municipal and industrial polluters. By 1998, more than 150 successful legal actions had been filed against polluters, helping to spur a comeback in the waterway.
In recent years, nearly 50 river– bay– and soundkeepers have been established in North and Central America, each serving as a nongovernmental ombudsman for the waterway. As in the Hudson, riverkeepers patrol in boats that range from canoes to research vessels — even hip boots — to gather information and protect their resource.
The Anacostia runs through some of the District of Columbia’s poorest communities and has a long legacy of pollution that has caused the Bay Program to label it one of three toxic “regions of concern” in the Chesapeake watershed.
“The neighborhoods through which it flows are forgotten communities,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of the Water Keeper Alliance, an umbrella group representing riverkeepers. “Restoring the Anacostia is an important step in restoring dignity and vitality to these communities. The Anacostia Riverkeeper will work with all of the river’s stewards, public and private, to ensure the restoration of this national treasure.”
Like keepers elsewhere, Whitehead will patrol the river by boat, looking for new sources of pollution and investigating problems. When problems are found, the first step is to encourage efforts to control pollution and — if that fails — to go to court. “We will go after them with more of a carrot at first,” he said. “If that doesn’t work we’ll break out the hammer and start bringing litigation.”
Whitehead is an environmental litigation attorney formerly with the Sierra Club [now Earthjustice] Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. His position is being funded initially by the Earth Conservation Corps and the Anacostia Watershed Society, but is to become self-supporting within two years.
The Anacostia is only eight miles long — running primarily through the District — but Whitehead will address concerns through its much larger watershed, which drains 176 square miles, most of which is in Maryland.
To clean up the river, Whitehead said he would like to see big reductions in toxics from stormwater runoff and a crackdown on combined sewer overflows — systems in which stormwater and sewage systems are mixed, a situation that causes the spillover of raw sewage into waterways during heavy storms.
“We need a 50 percent reduction in toxic loadings from stormwater and a 75 percent reduction in CSOs [combined sewer overflows] before the river will start to meet the water quality standards,” Whitehead said.
In recent years, concern about the health of the Anacostia has grown in the Washington area, leading to the formation of the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee, which represents the District and Maryland state and local governments. More recently, an Anacostia Watershed Toxics Alliance, consisting of government agencies and private business, was formed to work on cleanup issues.
Whitehead said he plans to work with such groups — up to a point. While the agencies on the committees are working to restore the river, they are also responsible for some of the problems, such as stormwater runoff — a major pollution source in the Anacostia. “Where they stop, we will pick up,” he said.
Still, Whitehead said, efforts in recent years have helped to bring back the Anacostia, and part of his job is to improve the public’s perception of the river. “It’s not a pristine water body, but it is not as bad as it once was,” he said. “My job is to get that message out.”
To do that, he will work with schools, develop partnerships with people working with the river, offer boat trips and get others involved in cleanups and activities that help to “make them own the river. We find that once people get out on the river and dispel these myths — that the river is bad, that the river is dead, that there are no fish in it, that if you fall in it you are going to die — they will see it is actually a beautiful natural resource and the District’s greatest resource,” he said.
Much of the river’s problems stem from a legacy of public neglect, even by previous administrations in the District. Whitehead said that this is changing. “We have a much better administration now which understands and realizes that, yes, the river has problems, but it is also a great natural resource for the District and should be utilized as such.”
District Mayor Anthony Williams welcomed the naming of an Anacostia riverkeeper during his remarks at the June meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, a panel including the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the district mayor, EPA administrator and Chesapeake Bay Commission chairman, which guides the Bay cleanup effort.
Williams quipped that he “looked forward to” the first suit by the riverkeeper on behalf of the Anacostia. He also emphasized that the Bay cleanup needed to move “into rivers and smaller tributaries that carry water, but also pollutants, into the Bay.”
Whitehead made the same point. “You’re not going to accomplish any of the goals that you have for the Bay or the Potomac River without dealing with the Anacostia.”
For information, visit the riverkeeper’s web site at www.anacostiariverkeeper.org, or call 202-554-1960.