Our River: The Anacostia

Lessons From the Chesapeake

Photo: The Old and the New at South Capitol St. Photo: Melissa Ashabranner

I have been working with colleagues to identify lessons learned from the Chesapeake Bay clean-up that might be useful to others trying to restore their local river or bay.  Some are lessons learned the hard way where the right things were not done.  But most are from recent experience with the clean-up, which is going pretty well.  I began to think how those ten lessons might apply to the effort to restore the Anacostia.  Let’s take a look.

Lesson 1 – Be Transparent
In general, it is important to keep the full range of interested parties aware of what is going on with the clean-up of the River — from scientists to politicians to environmental groups to the general public – boaters, hikers, swimmers, fishermen, etc.  Be clear on sources and quality of the information being used, on progress, and on new issues that are popping up.  The Anacostia recovery effort is doing a pretty good job on this given the complexity of the issues.

Lesson 2 – Communicate Results Clearly and Regularly
Is the River safe?  Is it getting better?  This is what the public wants to know first and foremost.  Clarity and credibility are key, whether talking to the general public, news reporters, scientists or fishermen.   In the Chesapeake, the Bay Journal is an independent monthly that reports what is happening.  There is no equivalent periodical from the Anacostia clean-up program, and there probably should be one from the Council of Governments, which coordinates Anacostia recovery efforts regionally, or from the DC Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE).


Lesson 3 – Engage Everyone – The Anacostia clean-up seems to welcome all who want to participate.  Some are with citizen-based non-profits involved in the overall clean-up; others want to deal with a single issue.  Some take part as employees of partner agencies or local businesses and industries involved in the clean-up.  All seem to feel welcome to participate in acquiring information, forming policies, influencing key decisions and even committee work. The key is to keep this sense that all are welcome – that no one and no interest is being left out.

Lesson 4 – Assure Leadership
Keeping a unified focus and preventing the emergence of dissenting views based on politics or unrelated bureaucratic rivalries are key.  This requires leadership from the top of each participating government entity and other participating organizations.  Obviously, there will be disagreements, but they should focus on the appropriate technical and budgetary solutions.  Along the Anacostia, there are a number of old industrial sites being cleaned up to comply with various Federal, state and local statutes.  So far, all the players seem to be working together; there is a strong need for this to continue.

Lesson 5 – Build All Levels into the Structure
Restoration of complex natural systems such as rivers and bays needs to operate at many levels to draw upon the mix of technical and political expertise to get the job done.  This includes top-level elected officials in both executive and legislative branches.  Government professionals at all levels and with varied expertise must represent a wide range of participating agencies. Educational and environmental groups, as well as private site landowners should participate in committees or independent review groups.  So far this seems to be working on the Anacostia, with industrial and other private contaminated sites sharing goals and remediation actions with the broader River recovery.

6 – Secure Long-term Funding
Many an environmental restoration project has had its needs well-defined, but the money to do the job has eluded the advocates.  In the case of the Chesapeake, the political support from six states and the District has been remarkable and assured on-going budgetary and other support from Congress, Federal agencies and other partners.  But that long-term focus has not yet emerged in the Anacostia.  Executive and legislative leaders must be strong advocates, and program needs must be clearly defined in terms of multi-year funding.  Clear goals reached by broad consensus is the key to broad public support for funding to get the job done in the Anacostia.

7 – Cite the Science Behind Decisions
The general public and the scientific community both need to understand the results from analyzing data from modeling, monitoring and other credible scientific sources.  Reporting to these two groups is quite different; the scientific community expects highly technical explanations, while the public is interested in the overall progress being made.  Information must be layered in technical detail, but consistent throughout in terms of the overall message on progress.  In the Anacostia, full technical reports are made available, with too little effort to boil down the issues so the general public can get a grasp.

8 – Use Science to Inform and Confirm
The role of science in complex recovery efforts such as these is critical and its integrity must be protected.  As with any bureaucracy, scientists working in government can be constrained by superiors seeking to save money or avoid spreading “bad news.”. Two solutions are (1) to spread the scientific role among partners and layers so that one off-message partner can be drawn back into the fold; and (2) to establish an independent peer review or science advisory panel to detect when there are issues of accuracy or consistency.   The first is used effectively in the Anacostia effort, but the second should be given some consideration.

9 – Be Adaptable
Many lessons above suggest that strong, clear goals supported by science and the public are important to progress. But sometimes credible information suggests that adjustment of a goal is wise.  The reputation of the program is the key to being able to make these adjustments without raising suspicions.  And the public reaction will depend on their trust that those in charge are not backing off, but achieving better and/or quicker results.  The DOEE and its partners seem to have done well in explaining change to the public.

10 – Be Accountable
Clear and challenging goals should build a system of accountability.  All associated with the program should be expected to be part of achieving the goals; no one in the program should see advantage in publically attacking the goals or the measures of progress.  Each participant should feel accountable for the formulation of goals and their achievement, as well as needed adjustments along the way.  In the Anacostia, this seems to be handled well.

Those are the 10 Lessons and my sense of how we are doing in the Anacostia. So how do you think we stack up?

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.