Our River: The Anacostia

The Big Picture from Tommy Wells

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Winter on the Anacostia

When one asks about the recovery of the Anacostia River, “Who in DC is in charge?”, the answer comes back, “Tommy Wells”.  That is because he wears the two key hats as Director of the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and Board Chair of DC Water.  And before he took the DOEE job in 2015, he had been since 2006 the Ward 6 City Councilmember. It is a love forged from many years boating on and living near the Anacostia.

“I grew up along the wild and scenic Cahaba River in Alabama, and the family had two cabins and 23 acres along a lakeshore with marshes in Minnesota for summers,” he tells me.  He bought his first canoe at 16 and when he came to DC 35 years ago he was “impressed” by the Anacostia and bought another canoe and later a 19-foot day sailor called the “Flying Scott.”

Tommy Wells along the Anacostia, Photo: Tommy Wells

When he became the DOEE Director, he discovered an aluminum canoe that came with the job.  He uses it to take government officials including City Councilmembers and even Adam Ortiz, the EPA Regional Administrator, out on the river to make them aware of the potential of a restored Anacostia.  His guests are always surprised at the extent and variety of birds and other wildlife on the shores.  Spreading the awareness of the river’s existing and potential offerings to the public builds support for funding its continued recovery.   And Mayor Bowser has assured Wells she will always support the restoration efforts.

The Anacostia is a watershed with many sources of pollution – even the air emits chemicals (mostly from burning fuels) that cause harm.  Much of the River in DC is tidal, and it has difficulty flushing because of the pushback from the Potomac and the prevailing westerly breezes.  Floating debris is a special problem and can take weeks to leave the river, unlike on the Potomac, which has a clear shot to the Chesapeake.  The US Army Corps of Engineers log removal boat and the DC Water skimmer boat are both essential, as are better controls on upstream sources.  That involves everything from reducing the use of plastics in packaging to teaching folks that dropping trash in the street or on the ground starts it on a route to the river through the storm sewers.

The part of the watershed on combined sewers has the recent addition of tunnel storage, which has reduced the regular overflow of both sewage and debris into the river to under five percent of what it was.  Where there are separated sanitary and storm sewers, the storm sewers still empty into the river and take the trash along.  And drainage of areas near and along the river still enters directly with whatever trash and pollutants it is carrying.   So there is still much for businesses, homeowners and volunteers to do to reduce the runoff and the littering.

Adam Ortiz, past Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties’ Environment Director and newly named EPA Regional Administrator. Photo: Tommy Wells

Another potential pollutant source is the re-suspension of pollutants in sediments that have settled along the river bottom.  This involves identifying the hotspots and either covering or removing them.  Wells feels this part of the city-funded clean-up efforts is underway and in good hands.

In general, Wells is seeing data that shows we are making real progress in restoring the Anacostia.  For example, a number of the fish species that spend their entire lives in the Anacostia are showing more improvement in numbers and overall health than species that spend part of their lives in the oceans and other estuaries.  This is good news!

I asked Wells what part of the river was his favorite. “I love boating on the part along the Arboretum and up towards the New York Avenue bridge,” he said.  “It is peaceful and natural—you cannot believe you are inside the Beltway, and you get a sense of time and the past – very refreshing.”

Finally, what does Wells think citizens on both sides of the river can do to help along the efforts toward its restoration?  “The most important thing is to become and remain aware of the issues facing the river, and how you can help by getting involved in volunteer projects to deal with them.  Some activities can be on your property at home, such as the RiverSmart Program’s assistance with replacing impermeable surfaces with gardens and retaining rainwater.  Others would be in your neighborhood or down by the river.  But the most important thing is to get out and enjoy the Anacostia by walking, biking or rowing along it, or by using the playgrounds and other facilities that are coming.  You will be inspired by what you see and what you can do to help!”

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.  He also serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.