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Waterways Restored: Case Study 4 - The Anacostia River in Maryland and Washington D.C.

When the Clean Water Act is applied to American waterways, good things can happen. Our recent report, Waterways Restored: The Clean Water Act's Impact on 15 American Rivers, Lakes and Bays, highlights waterways where the Clean Water Act's protections and improvement provisions have had positive effects. Polluted waterways have been cleaned up, pristine waterways have been preserved, and threatened waterways have been protected. All waterways deserve these opportunities.

In this blog series, we'll showcase individual case studies from the report. The next installment is the Anacostia River in Maryland and Washington D.C.

MARYLAND and the DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: The Nation’s Capital Takes on Discarded Plastic Bags, Beverage Containers and Other Trash in the Anacostia River

 

Citizen and government efforts to reduce trash in the Anacostia River have cleaned up the river and create hope for swimming and fishing there in coming years. CREDIT National Park Service

 

Often called the “Forgotten River” because of the attention paid to its more famous neighbor, the Potomac, the Anacostia River in Maryland and the District of Columbia (D.C.) is, as the Natural Resources Defense Council puts it, the “poster child” for neglected and polluted urban waterways.[i] The river still suffers from the pollution of the past, but the Clean Water Act provides hope for the future.

 

Though the river’s main stem is just eight miles long, historically its banks have been thick with industrial sites. It has become surrounded by rapid development in its watershed, 70 percent of which is now dominated by cityscape or suburb and attendant infrastructure.[ii] The consequences for the river have been severe. Several toxic legacy sites along the river’s banks, including a former D.C. landfill that was allowed to extend into the river itself until the 1970s, have been sources of PCB and metals contamination either through direct dumping or nonpoint source runoff.[iii] Toxic contamination is one of the primary reasons officials warn against swimming in, and eating fish from, the river.[iv]

 

Besides toxic contaminants, the Anacostia is polluted by fecal bacteria. Like many older cities in the northeastern United States, D.C.’s sewage infrastructure makes use of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). CSOs combine stormwater with city sewage and, in the wake of heavy rain events, expel overflows of the mixture directly into the river, putting public health at risk.[v] The Anacostia receives nearly 1.5 billion gallons of such untreated overflow annually.[vi]

 

Physical trash – plastic bags, beverage containers and so on – is another source of degradation for the river, harming both wildlife and the waterway’s aesthetic. Each year, illegal dumping and stormwater runoff send hundreds of tons of trash into the Anacostia.[vii]

 

For decades, community leaders have organized volunteer efforts to pick up the trash from the river and its banks, but it wasn’t enough: The garbage just kept coming, while sewage fouled the river.[viii]

 

In 1989, the Anacostia Watershed Society formed and took up legal fights over potential damage from riverfront development and toxic dumping into the Anacostia, defending the river against being partially filled in to allow construction of a new NFL football stadium, demanding the U.S. Navy clean up a toxic mess at the Washington Navy Yard, and forcing the District of Columbia to virtually eliminate combined sewage overflows.[ix] But despite those significant improvements, the river was still troubled.

 

In 2006, both Maryland and the District of Columbia designated the Anacostia as impaired for trash under the Clean Water Act.[x]

 

Now, provisions of the Clean Water Act are forcing action to restore the river to fishable and swimmable quality.[xi] Under the Act, in order to discharge pollutants into waterways, entities must acquire a permit specifying the maximum allowed amount of discharge. Collectively, the permits cannot exceed prescribed limits, called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). States must develop waterways’ TMDLs by calculating the maximum amount of a given pollutant a waterway can receive and still comply with water quality standards. Municipalities, which receive permits for stormwater runoff discharges, must also comply with the TMDLs.[xii]

 

Both D.C. and Maryland have established TMDLs that were accepted by the EPA to control oil and grease pollution, bacteria levels, and even trash volumes on the river.[xiii] The Anacostia’s trash TMDL was announced in 2010.[xiv]

 

That same year, specifically citing the need to follow the TMDL and reduce trash pollution in the Anacostia, the District of Columbia imposed a five-cent fee on the use of disposable shopping bags – both paper and plastic – and required any such bags be made of recyclable material and labeled to ask users to recycle them.[xv] While not as strong as a direct ban on plastic bags, the fee is reducing bag use and raising money to clean up the river.[xvi] In 2011, Montgomery County, Maryland, through which the Anacostia flows before getting to D.C., passed a similar bag fee.[xvii]

 

Styrofoam food containers are another common trash item found in the Anacostia.[xviii] In late summer 2014, the District expanded its efforts to eliminate trash in the river by banning the use of Styrofoam containers by food-service establishments starting in 2016.[xix] Montgomery County is considering such a ban as well.

 

The Anacostia River’s restoration is undoubtedly a work in progress, with years of effort remaining to return the waterway to fishable and swimmable quality – including addressing combined sewer overflows that still foul the river after rainstorms and the toxic legacy sites on its banks.[xx] But the establishment of the trash TMDL in recent years instigated a cleanup effort that is showing promise. In early 2012, “trash traps,” mechanisms to separate trash from stormwater runoff before it entered the river, were collecting 800 pounds of garbage a month, and more were in the process of being installed.[xxi] Though overall scores were low, the Anacostia Watershed Society’s (AWS) 2014 report card for the river announced that trash levels are dropping, as are fecal bacteria counts.[xxii] The AWS hopes the river will be declared fishable and swimmable by 2025.[xxiii]

 


   

[i] Natural Resources Defense Council, Cleaning Up the Anacostia River, accessed at www.nrdc.org/water/pollution, 11 September 2014.

[ii] Eight miles long: Natural Resources Defense Council, Cleaning Up the Anacostia River, accessed at www.nrdc.org/water/pollution, 11 September 2014; 70 percent developed: Anacostia Watershed Society, Stormwater, accessed at www.anacostiaws.org/programs, 11 September 2014.

[iii] Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership, White Paper on PCB and PAH Contaminated Sediment in the Anacostia River – Final Draft, 23 February 2009; Anacostia Watershed Society, Toxics, accessed at www.anacostiaws.org/programs, 11 September 2014.

[iv] Anacostia Watershed Society, Toxics, accessed at www.anacostiaws.org/programs, 11 September 2014.

[v] Anacostia Watershed Society, Bacteria, accessed at www.anacostiaws.org/programs, 11 September 2014.

[vi] District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, Biannual Report: Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control Activities: Clean Rivers Project News, October 2011.

[vii] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, D.C., Maryland Set Trash Limits for Anacostia Watershed (press release), 21 September 2010.

[viii] Anacostia Watershed Society, What Does It Take To Clean A River? The State of the River on the 25th Anniversary of the Anacostia Watershed Society, 2014.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Anacostia River Watershed: Environmental Condition and Restoration Overview (Draft), March 2007.

[xi] George S. Hawkins, District Department of the Environment, Anacostia 2032: Plan for a Fishable and Swimmable Anacostia River, May 2008.

[xii] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Overview of Impaired Waters and Total Maximum Daily Loads Program, accessed at www.water.epa.gov/lawsregs/lawsguidance/cwa, 11 September 2014.

[xiii] Oil and grease pollution: George S. Hawkins, District Department of the Environment, Anacostia 2032: Plan for a Fishable and Swimmable Anacostia River, May 2008; bacteria levels: George S. Hawkins, District Department of the Environment, Anacostia 2032: Plan for a Fishable and Swimmable Anacostia River, May 2008; trash: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, D.C., Maryland Set Trash Limits for Anacostia Watershed (press release), 21 September 2010.

[xiv] See note vii.

[xv] District of Columbia, Department of the Environment, Summary of the District’s Carryout Bag Requirements, accessed at green.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ddoe/publication/attachments/Bag%20Regs%20Summary.pdf, 19 September 2014.

[xvi] District of Columbia, Department of the Environment, Skip the Bag, Save the River, accessed at green.dc.gov/bags, 19 September 2014.

[xvii] Montgomery County, Maryland, Keep Your Reusable Bags Handy Whenever and Wherever You Shop, accessed at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/Bag/, 29 September 2014.

[xviii] Josh Hamlin, Legislative Attorney, Montgomery County, Maryland, Memorandum, Agenda Item 4B, Introduction: Bill 41-14, Solid Waste (Trash) Food Service Products ­ Packaging Materials - Requirements, 5 September 2014.

[xix] District of Columbia, Mayor Gray Signs Bill Banning Styrofoam Use in District (press release), 29 July 2014.

[xx] A lawsuit against the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority was settled in 2004 with an agreement to build, by 2024, an overflow storage system that will all but eradicate CSOs. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Historic Settlement to Reduce Bacteria and Sewage in D.C. Rivers, Would Store Sewer Overflows Underground for Treatment Later (press release), 16 December 2004.

[xxi] Sabri Ben-Achour, “Trapping Trash Before It Gets to the Anacostia,” WAMU.org, 30 January 2012.

[xxii] Anacostia Watershed Society, 2014 State of the Anacostia River Report Card, 2014.

[xxiii] See note viii.