Anacostia paddlers

Staff and volunteers with the Anacostia Watershed Society paddle the Anacostia as part of an event that released thousands of freshwater mussels into the river in September 2019. 

In looking for lessons to apply to the cleanup of the Anacostia River, we need turn only to the nearby Chesapeake Bay. That restoration effort has been under way for decades, and much has been learned from it. Many people may not realize, though, that the Anacostia effort has also produced lessons that might be well-applied to the Bay. Trading experiences and lessons learned is one way we can all benefit, so let’s take a look.

From the Bay to the Anacostia

Lesson #1: Report progress in an understandable manner. Both the state-federal Bay Program partnership and the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation report progress to the public on a regular basis. The foundation gives the effort a grade each year, with recent years getting a C or D. The Bay Program provides credible progress measures for a number of categories the public can readily understand: fish, grass beds, upstream water quality, source reductions, etc. Reports show how the various elements fit together and where more progress is needed, especially from agriculture. While the Anacostia cleanup tries to report progress, information is not published on such a regular basis and the various measures are not integrated into an overall sense of progress and challenges.

Lesson #2: Show that everyone and everything can benefit from the restoration. There is an overall sense that a well-designed and executed restoration of the Bay, its creeks, rivers and nearby lands can benefit all aspects of nature and humanity. The related message is that we all need to do our part. In the Anacostia watershed, we should also ensure that all of the nearby neighborhoods and communities are aware of what is happening to restore the river and are helping to promote the wide range of opportunities for recreation and other enjoyment.

Lesson #3: Measure progress against specific goals that are readily understood by the public. The Bay restoration effort, through widespread information sources such as the monthly Bay Journal and regular Bay Program press releases, is able to keep people informed of progress and challenges. This is further helped by adopting clear and measurable goals and by explaining how actions affect goal attainment and other related goals. This is not easy, and the Anacostia effort should try to learn how the Bay Program has accomplished this over the years. While much is measured in the Anacostia, the way that different actions taken relate to each other and to progress could be refined through a regular reporting system that the public can anticipate and react to.

Lesson #4: Engage top leadership on a regular basis. The Bay Program holds an annual public meeting with the governors of the watershed states, mayor of the District of Columbia, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regional leaders to review progress and renew commitments. These meetings are critical for holding the attention and support of the top political leadership and providing a regular opportunity for them to recommit publicly to the Bay restoration. Although they or their representatives faithfully attend these Bay meetings, the governor of Maryland and the mayor of DC have no similar event that meets on a regular basis with respect to the Anacostia, and they should.

From the Anacostia to the Bay

Lesson #1: Make sure that upstream and downstream communities learn to work together. In the Anacostia recovery, there has been excellent communication and joint support from communities throughout the river’s watershed. Although the interests of upstream nontidal communities differ from those of downstream tidal communities, they have found much in common and supported efforts that benefit others. Admittedly, these groups are physically a lot closer than the farmers and fishermen of the Bay. But there are lessons to be learned about meeting and working together and sharing successes and failures, all for the sake of the Bay.

Lesson #2: Take the lead in developing and using new technology. People take pride in their public agencies’ leadership and use of the latest technologies to help clean up the waters. The Anacostia has at least led the region and maybe the nation in a number of areas, including the highest achievable level of nutrient reduction by eliminating 98% of combined sewer overflows and the very successful daylighting of storm sewers such as Springhouse Run through the National Arboretum — recreating streams and restoring fish and wildlife where there was previously just a pipe. Success stories like these garner public support.

Lesson #3: Provide recreation and access to the water for all people. Public ownership of much of the Anacostia shoreline has made it relatively easy to build access points and trails along the water. With good publicity, potential users with a variety of interests are made aware of what is available for their use and enjoyment. This is a problem for the Bay, which has less public waterfront land. Greater public awareness of existing access areas, along with innovative programs for hiking and biking trails as well as camping sites, can make more areas attractive and gain broad-based public support.

Lesson # 4: Encourage more support from federal agencies. Because the Anacostia runs through Washington, DC, federal agencies have come forth with help in a number of areas. The National Park Service owns the tidal river bottom and much of the shoreline; the local and federal departments of transportation have helped a lot on building and maintaining the trails; and the Navy has carried out cleanups and provided access along the shoreline. There may be opportunities to increase the engagement of federal agencies in the broader Bay watershed. So we are all in this together, and we need to learn lessons from each other. n

Bill Matuszeski, a member of the DC mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, is the retired director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program office. He also serves on the citizen advisory committees for the Chesapeake and Anacostia. This column first appeared in the HillRag.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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