10 Ways to Help Our River While Stuck At Home

Our River: The Anacostia

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Ground cover at work. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

We are living in strange times—tied to our homes to escape the pandemic and not sure how safe it is to go out or how safe it will be anytime soon.  But that does not say we cannot do good for our community.  In fact, many of us are taking advantage of the early and spectacular spring to get out to our gardens and our yards to do things we have only thought about for years.  And it so happens that many of those things can be of great benefit to the Anacostia River if we take a little time to discover how.

Here are ten ways that our gardening and related outside activities can help Our River:

  1. Plant trees and ground covers to control erosion.

Much of the Anacostia suffers from too much sediment entering it from the surrounding lands and sewer lines.  One way you can help reduce erosion and sediment runoff is to plant trees and replace lawns and bare soil with groundcovers.  Try to avoid invasive and non-native groundcovers like English ivy.  Trees develop extensive root systems to hold the soil and moderate temperatures with shade to help other plants.

  1. Use native plants in gardens

Native plants help Our River by sending down roots accustomed to our soils and rainfall, thus avoiding the need for additional watering and associated runoff.  They also need less in the way of chemical treatments and fertilizers than non-natives. And since they use less water added by hoses from our drinking water system, they avoid putting chemicals added for our health that may not necessarily be good for plants or the river.

  1. Avoid chemical fertilizers, copper-containing fungicides and synthetic pesticides on your property.

There are safer and more nature-friendly alternatives on the market that do just as well and often do not cost more.  And you can replace some of the fertilizer and other soil benefits with a compost pile of natural material from your garden.

  1. Properly dispose of yard, hazardous and pet wastes.

Some of the yard waste can safely be added to your compost pile.  The rest should be treated or disposed of safely in the trash.  The main thing is to keep them from being washed into the storm sewer system where they can end up in the river and affect water quality.

  1. Limit car use to reduce airborne pollution deposition.

We do not often think about automobile use as having a negative effect on Our River, but the deposition of airborne pollutants is a major source of toxics to urban rivers like the Anacostia.  So we can all do our part by conserving energy and using public transit, biking or walking.

  1. Don’t wash yard waste, chemicals, oil or grease down the storm drains.

This is especially important in the areas with separate stormwater and waste-water sewer systems, since the storm sewers empty directly into the river and its tributaries with no treatment.  This includes most of Anacostia and the areas west of the river above Benning Road.  The rest of the city, including Capitol Hill, downtown and beyond and the commercial area of Anacostia along MLK Avenue, is on the combined system with the new tunnels, but even they can overflow into the river at times.  And when they do they bring all the sewage as well.

  1. Don’t litter or dispose of trash into storm drains.

Some people still think that the way to deal with litter and trash is to sweep it into the storm drain.  For a large part of our watershed, that simply means that in a few minutes that cup will be happily floating down the Anacostia and into the Potomac, the Chesapeake and the Atlantic.  Even the combined sewers will occasionally add their debris to the river during a storm.  Far better to bag it and send it with the trash pick-up.

  1. Install rain barrels.

Rain barrels can be readily installed at your downspouts from the roof, serving as a source of free, fresh water without the additives to our drinking water that help humans but not necessarily plants.  It is the best source of water for plants, but it needs to be applied with care to prevent erosion and runoff of sediment.

  1. Install rain gardens.

Rain gardens are another great addition to your property, often also using roof downspouts run out from the house as a source.  This can reduce wetness and overflow into basements, as well as provide a place to add a beautiful garden of water-tolerant native plants.  And by holding the rainwater on-site, you are reducing the runoff to the Anacostia in a storm.

  1. Install permeable pavers.

Much of the runoff from your property can come from paved areas where the water cannot be absorbed and simply runs into other areas, often adding to the flow off the property.  Many of these areas, including walkways, patios and even driveways can be replaced with permeable pavers, hard materials like bricks that can have spaces between them where the water seeps into the ground and is absorbed on-site.  The result is more water for nearby plants and reduced runoff to sewers and the river.

Permeable pavers at work. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

Information and partial funding for many of the above improvements is available from the DC Government through a program called Riversmart Homes.  It is a joint effort by the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the non-profit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.  They have various programs that help homeowners understand the options and cover the cost of rain barrels, rain gardens, permeable pavers and other landscape improvements to help Our River.  Check out the following:

www.allianceforthebay.org/our-work/key-program-focuses/reducing-stormwater-runoff/riversmart-homes/     or:

www.doee.dcgov/service/rshapplication/

You will find them a pleasure to deal with!

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.