When the national anthem is finally played in the new baseball stadium rising along the banks of the Anacostia River, long-suffering fans of the Washington Nationals may have to use one hand to hold their hats over their hearts—and the other hand to hold their noses.

Every year, human waste is discharged directly—or leaks indirectly—into the Anacostia by a century-old sewage system that is overwhelmed during heavy rains and is riddled with leaks.

Most sewage from homes and businesses is combined with stormwater from city streets and sent to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant.

On the good days, the pipes and pumps that move the effluvia merely leak from decades of poor maintenance.

On the bad days—the rainy days—stormwater overwhelms the capacity of Washington’s antiquated wastewater collection system.

As a result, about 1.5 billion gallons of untreated wastewater are annually discharged from 16 outfalls into the Anacostia. Another 1 billion gallons is discharged into the Potomac River.

For fans, rain delays never seemed to so bad.

Raw sewage is just one of the insults hurled at the muddy, polluted Anacostia—which was once so clear that legendary explorer John Smith described it as a “crystal” river. Long considered one of the most polluted rivers in the Bay watershed, and even the nation, the Anacostia also suffers from urban runoff after every rainfall, a legacy of past toxic pollution and an overwhelming amount of trash.

When Smith reached the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers nearly 400 years ago, he found a busy commercial center (Anacostia is a Nanchotank word meaning trading center.) and a tidal river with a seemingly limitless supply of shad, herring, perch and catfish. Fields of wild rice and wetlands were bordered by lush forests.

But Smith’s “discovery” of the Anacostia unleashed a tidal wave of settlement that by the Civil War had replaced the region’s forests with corn, cotton and tobacco and, more recently, buildings, roads and shopping malls.

Long hidden in the shadow of the Potomac, the Anacostia—which drains much of the District of Columbia and two neighboring Maryland counties—had been mostly neglected for decades. But local activists and some political leaders have rediscovered the river in recent years, bringing new hope for its future.

To be sure, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a recent report card, put the Anacostia at 19 on a 100-point scale, but that was up from 14 two years ago, and the organization said growing interest in redeveloping areas near the river is providing new economic incentives to drive further cleanup action.

“While today the river’s health is only slightly better than it was in the past, there are increasing signs that the Anacostia might one day be restored to what it once was—clean, healthy, and biologically productive,” the CBF said in its report.

THE raw sewage is often what gets people’s attention today. But, it’s the conversion of the river’s watershed from a natural filter into a funnel—a transformation that has dramatically altered the hydrology of the Anacostia’s tributaries—that is the biggest challenge facing D.C.’s “forgotten river.”

Rain that once seeped into the ground or was captured and slowly released by wetlands now courses off roads and roofs, causing massive bank erosion that has led some to call the deeply incised creeks and streams the “gorges of Prince George’s.” On average, about one quarter of the river’s watershed is covered by roads and other surfaces that are “impervious” to rain. In the more heavily urbanized areas, half of the land is covered with impervious surfaces.

So much sediment has been, and continues to be, washed into the river that local environmentalists recently held a “beach party” at the historic Port of Bladensburg.

Once upon a time, Bladensburg served as Washington’s primary seaport—tall ships would sail up the Anacostia to collect tobacco bound for Europe. In those days, the river was 40 feet deep. By 1850, so much sediment had been washed off farm fields that the port could no longer be used by ocean-going vessels.

Today, the river is usually less than 4 feet deep—and is sometimes less than 4 inches deep—and the historic “port” is dominated by what could generously be called a massive sand bar.

Because the Anacostia is a tidal river that once slowly meandered across a broad, flat floodplain, the river lacks the power to move the sediment downstream.

Stormwater runoff also contributes new pollutants to legacy toxins that have given many of the river’s brown bullhead catfish liver and skin tumors.

About two-thirds of the catfish collected from three sites in 2000 and 2001 had liver tumors—an amount that usually reserved scientists called “surprising” and is higher than the rates reported for fish collected in the most contaminated parts of Great Lakes. While a legacy of industrial contaminants are partly to blame, scientists also connected the tumors to the oil, grease, asphalt and other fossil fuel byproducts that are washed off roads or emitted from nearby cars and trucks.

The toxins collect in the bottom of the river, where they are consumed by bottom-dwelling fish (and sometimes consumed by people, despite warnings).

And then there’s the trash. By one estimate, 20,000 tons of trash is annually washed—or dumped—into the Anacostia.

THE Anacostia suffers from the same, seemingly intractable ills as many of the region’s urban rivers, including the Patapsco River in Baltimore and Elizabeth River in Norfolk.

But thanks in part to its proximity to Capitol Hill—and largely to the determination of a dedicated band of local activists, legislators, attorneys, congressional staffers and bureaucrats—real progress is being made on the Anacostia.

For starters, legal challenges have forced the Washington Suburban Sanity Commission—the water utility for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties—to retrofit and repair leaking sewage pipes.

For decades, the utility’s 5,200-mile-long network of pipes and drains oozed sewage and stormwater into tributaries like Sligo Creek in Montgomery County. Local activists and their lawyers charged that the WSSC was breaking federal clean water laws, and the utility finally agreed to a $350 million settlement that includes inspecting and cleaning more than 1,000 miles of sewer mains over five years.

A separate legal challenge has compelled the District’s water utility to spend as much as $2 billion to build tunnels that will temporarily store stormwater from heavy rains underground rather than overwhelming the sewer system. Work on the tunnels began this summer, and some repairs to pipes and pumps have already been completed.

Experts say it will be at least a decade (and maybe two decades) before the “long-term control plan” for the Anacostia’s sewage system is completed. Baseball fans may see the city’s team win a pennant sooner.

But most of the community activists who started to “raise a stink” about the Anacostia nearly two decades ago may live long enough to see the day when human waste is no longer spewed into the river.

Officials hope some funding for the tunnels will come from Congress—which is no small irony as much of the human waste flushed into the Anacostia during heavy rains originates on Capitol Hill. One activist joked that he would like to stencil “do not flush during heavy rain” in the stalls of Capitol Hill bathrooms.

“As long as the Rayburn House Office Building is plumbed straight into the river, the District does have a unique claim” to federal support, said Tom Arrasmith, a former lobbyist who now serves on the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

“The Army Corps [of Engineers] built the system, and the federal government, including the Capitol complex, contributes significantly to directly polluting [the Anacostia] when the system overflows,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has championed Corps efforts to clean up the river. “It follows that the federal government must become fully engaged in upgrading the system.”

PROXIMITY to power has made a difference. Congress has already made one down payment on the river’s return—investing millions of dollars for the restoration of wetlands and fish passage projects by the Corps of Engineers.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations “discovered” the Anacostia after taking office—much like Smith “discovered” the river four centuries ago—and both pledged to make the river a centerpiece of national urban river restoration efforts.

While the Corps is nominally in charge of federal efforts to repair the Anacostia, the EPA has reached into the agency’s tool bag to provide roughly $2 million a year to reduce stormwater, clean up toxics and to launch a “green highways” initiative to build river restoration into transportation planning. The Corps is working on a comprehensive restoration strategy for the Anacostia watershed, and Norton and as well as Maryland Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski have been leading efforts to expand the Corps’ role.

“The Anacostia River is one of the most degraded rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; we must increase our efforts to turn this river around,” said Sarbanes, who is retiring from the Senate. For Sarbanes, the fate of the Bay is directly linked to the fate of the Anacostia. “Until we begin to make substantial progress on cleanup of the Anacostia River and other waterways, the health of the Bay will continue to suffer,” he said.

There’s also real hope to reduce the amount of trash being washed into the river—thanks in part to commitments made by regional officials at a “trash summit” this spring.

Maryland state officials have already designated the river as “trash impaired.” If officials create a Total Maximum Daily Load for trash, they will be forced to limit the amount of refuse entering waterways by implementing trash-trapping technologies such as those developed for the Los Angeles River—the nation’s most trashed river.

WHEN Robert Boone and a dozen volunteers started the Anacostia Watershed Society in 1989, they knew they “had to get rid of the blight,” said Jim Connelly, executive director of the organization. “If not, people would close their minds to the larger possibilities of what could be.”

In 1989, the Anacostia was called the city’s “forgotten river.”

While efforts had been made to clean up the Potomac—which runs through wealthier parts of the Montgomery County and the District of Columbia—little attention had been focused on the river cutting through city’s poorer southeastern quarter.

Boone, a one-time solar panel entrepreneur and yoga instructor set to work organizing river cleanups. Since then, the Anacostia Watershed Society and its army of volunteers have collected 620 tons of trash and 11,500 tires.

Today, city and county officials are seriously talking about something only Boone and other a few other crazy idealists could have imagined—making the river “trash-free” by 2013.

The biggest challenge, though, will be getting a handle on the witches’ brew of stormwater washed into the creeks and streams that feed the Anacostia.

And, activists say, the ballpark could be one of three critical turning points.

The ballpark is a small but central piece of a massive redevelopment project under way along the Anacostia that will dramatically reshape the neighborhoods between Capitol Hill and the river. “The days of the Anacostia being the ‘forgotten river’ are over,” said outgoing Washington Mayor Anthony Williams.

Early plans for the ballpark called for stormwater spouts buffered by wetlands and rain gardens on the roof. The last thing the Anacostia needed was more roads and parking lots dumping more grease and oil into the river.

“The ballpark design is a referendum on the river’s future, an important precedent for what’s to come,” said Brian Van Wye, the Anacostia Riverkeeper. “If this stadium—which has been presented as a green stadium—pollutes rather than protects the river, that does not bode well for what’s to come.”

Local activists have urged city and county officials to embrace the tools of low impact development, which calls for stormwater management systems that use natural features to slow down and filter rainwater, and promotes infiltration into the ground.

They point to the green roof on a new federal building along the river—the largest green roof on the Eastern Seaboard—and imagine a city of hanging gardens bordered by clean rivers. A recent study found that green roofs would not only dramatically reduce the rate of stormwater runoff into the river but would also reduce summer temperatures, saving energy.

MAYOR Williams called the river “the city’s most undervalued resource” and pledged that the city will “make the river that once divided us a symbol of our unity and the engine of a thriving waterfront.” And, activists like Arrasmith were pleased when the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. made a clean, healthy river one of the dominant themes of early planning documents.

Over the next few years, the AWC will oversee the construction of office buildings, housing units, parklands and a river walk. The quasi-governmental organization is finalizing standards that will likely require developers to manage their stormwater on site, or to purchase offsets when onsite stormwater management could make pollution problems worse, according to Brendan Shane, director of environmental programs and policy for the AWC. The standards are also expected to require green roofs, rain gardens and systems to promote more water infiltration into the ground, he said.

The development plans could turn brown spaces into green spaces, but will also result in the addition of upscale, high-density homes and businesses—what some planners call an urban village—around the ballpark. Because the AWC does not supplant city zoning authorities, Shane can only impose the corporation’s standards through commercial agreements with developers on the land under his control. But, Shane hopes that the tougher standards will ultimately be adopted by city officials regulating other development near the river.

The District Council is expected to consider a new “green building” ordinance in December.

In the second critical turning point for the river, Montgomery County may soon become one of the first counties in the nation to incorporate low impact development principles into the county’s stormwater permit system.

Local environmental groups are pressing state and county to set numeric limits for the rate at which stormwater can be washed off parcels being developed—and letting developers figure out how to meet those limits.

“These two decisions—whether to build a green ballpark and whether to incorporate LID into Montgomery County’s stormwater permit—will either set the stage for great progress or will simply reinforce the status quo,” Connelly said.

He and other activ ists hope that Montgomery County will raise the bar for Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia when they revisit stormwater rules in the next few years. Although hundreds of small stormwater management projects have been voluntarily implemented through the river’s 176-square mile watershed, real progress will only be achieved when LID concepts are “institutionalized” by the permit process, Connelly said. The District of Columbia included some LID concepts in the city’s stormwater permit when it was recently renewed but did not set a numeric limit for stormwater at sites being developed.

STORMWATER management has long been the central focus of the interagency Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee created in 1987 by the jurisdictions with direct control over the river’s watershed. Restoration goals for the river were established in 1991 by Maryland, the District of Columbia and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. They were updated in 2001, including new goals for pollutants, fish passage, wetlands and forest cover by 2010.

With a little more than three years to go, some of the goals for the river—such as goals for forest cover and pollution—are far from being met, according to a recent report by the AWRC. In the report on restoration trends, officials conceded that they were narrowly meeting restoration targets and schedules, in general, and falling behind some specific targets.

To meet these goals, officials and activists have created a new governance structure for the river—the third critical turning point.

For nearly two decades, the AWRC has been largely staffed by technical experts with little or no decision-making power. This year, state and local leaders agreed to create a “leadership council” consisting of the mayor, the governor, two county executives, the EPA’s regional administrator and the district engineer for the Baltimore District of the Corps of Engineers.

Although agency employees have been coordinating their work for decades, the council members “will have the ultimate power to make decisions about money,” said one federal official. The Anacostia Waterfront Corp. will also serve on the committee and will be “looking at ways to play a part in all the issues impacting the river,” Shane said.

Meeting the 2010 goals for the river is, experts and activists say, a question of a money.

“The Anacostia has been a dumping ground for pollution for decades, and while it cannot be restored overnight, it can be restored in our lifetime,” said CBF President Will Baker said. “While some progress has been made in recent years, the pace is far too slow.”

The loss of tidal wetlands between Bladensburg and the mouth of the Potomac provide a window on what has been the lost and the pace of restoration.

The Corps estimates that about 2,500 acres of tidal wetlands were lost when officials “channelized” the Anacostia to aid navigation and reduce flooding.

Today, only 180 acres of tidal wetlands remains. One of the most heralded wetland restoration projects constructed since 1987—the restoration of Kenilworth Marsh—restored about 32 acres of wetlands. The restoration goal for 2010 is fairly modest—60 acres of tidal wetlands and 15 acres of nontidal wetlands, and about half of the proposed work has been accomplished. But, officials warn in a recent report, funding constraints mean that new projects are not being designed or constructed, putting the 2010 goal in jeopardy.

On a recent day patrolling the river, Van Wye could see signs of the river’s return, such as the bald eagles, blue herons and osprey that now call the river home. Fish populations are stable (There have been no fish kills in more than a decade.) and some aquatic plants, such as wild celery and coontail, have reappeared in recent years. More than 120 acres of wetlands have been restored.

“There’s a lot of beauty out there, and we need to build on that,” Van Wye said. “We know what the big problems are—sewage, stormwater, habitat loss, waterfront development and a legacy of pollution—and we know how to correct these problems. It’s just a matter of political will.”

Anacostia at a Glance

  • The river drains 176-square miles of the District of Columbia and Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
  • More than 800,000 people live in the Anacostia’s watershed.
  • About 1.5 billion gallons of untreated wastewater are discharged into the Anacostia during heavy rains.
  • Residential development in the single largest land use in the watershed.
  • About 20,000 tons of trash are annually washed into the Anacostia.
  • About 25 percent of the watershed is still forested and about 7 percent is used for agriculture.
  • About 60 percent, or 4,000 acres, of nontidal wetlands and about 90 percent, or 2,500 acres, of tidal wetlands have been destroyed.