The Route to Better Boating on the Anacostia

Our River: The Anacostia

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This low-level railroad bridge crosses the Anacostia between the Pennsylvania Avenue and East Capitol Street bridges, and separates large from small vessels.

An important part of the recovery of the Anacostia is to make it feasible, attractive and safe for the public to take out small boats, either owned or rented, and feel the pleasures of finding favorite places.  This is especially true in the upper parts of the river where most of the shoreline and islands are in a natural state, although the vistas are pretty dramatic from anywhere along the river.

The river is getting better all the time in terms of pollution; discharge of combined sewer overflows are being virtually eliminated by the new tunnels that carry it directly to the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.  And improvements are being made to the few remaining pollution flows from upriver streams like Hickey Run and Lower Beaver Dam Creek near the DC/Maryland line.

Challenges Remain
Over the years, the Anacostia has been filling in. This started hundreds of years ago, when adjacent land was cleared for agriculture and topsoil ran into the river. Currently the river is subject to a lot of runoff from streets and residential areas that carries soil with it.

When the runoff enters from a stream or overland and eventually slows down, the soil that it carries, known as sediment, settles on the river bottom. After years without the regular dredging that rivers carrying larger vessels receive, parts of Our River, including portions of the boating channels, are so shallow that they can be dangerous. Boats, even smaller ones, can run aground and moving them is difficult because the river bottom may have no solid soil to stand on.

The solution is to dredge the boat channels deeper, but that may mean re-suspending in the water any toxins that may be in the sediments. And because the National Park Service owns and has responsibility to manage the river bottom, they are resistant to removing any of the soils there that might be toxic.

The solution has got to be to deepen the channels but very carefully to capture any escaping soils.  Normally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in control of the bottoms of streams and designs an approach internally. But here we need to get the City and the Park Service to develop a program and get it funded.

Above the railroad bridge the boats are nearly all small and powered by oars through natural landscapes.

That program needs to be designed to deal with the two portions of the river above and below the CSX Railroad Bridge, which crosses west to east from above Pennsylvania Avenue in Capitol Hill to right above the rink and museum at the end of the riverside road in Anacostia.  The river above the bridge carries nearly all paddle boats; there are a few motorboats and those have shallow hulls like the tour boats operated by environmental organizations, so the depth of the channels can be quite shallow, although some deepening may still be needed.

The river portion below the railroad bridge and further downstream is quite different and has significant challenges:

  • the depth of boat channel is authorized to 8 feet and the channel width to 80 feet in the area from the railroad bridge downstream to the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge, and 12 feet deep and 200 feet wide from there to the Potomac River.  The most recent dredging was in 1993, almost 30 years ago, so no one knows the actual depths and the bottom configuration.

Issues to be dealt with:

* There are boat marinas, some areas of which have filled with sediments coming downstream and off the land so that some boats cannot even be moved to reach the channel;

* There are areas where discharges from previous industrial activity cover virtually the entire river width and designated channels; any deepening could disturb these; and

* The likely extent of dredging needed will be significant and require substantial funds to remove and dispose of sediments, some of which may have toxic elements, as well as potential capping of bottom areas of the new channel with a layer of clean sediments.

Below the railroad bridge the boat clubs cover most of the west bank of the River.

All of this is to say that we can either sit around and talk about the conflicting goals related to boating, clean waters and public access and use of the river; or we can work out among all the interested parties and agencies ways to assure safe boating and even swimming in the Anacostia while minimizing the effects of modifying the bottom with a use of the full range of remediation technologies.

Many of the entities and people involved want to get moving on the design, adoption and implementation of a program to create an Anacostia River that draws us in to boat, fish, and swim with a sense of health and safety at the base of it all.  It is a challenge like this that will take us off deadlock and get us to celebration!

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.