“Early morning is beautiful on the river and I am a morning person so I’d be happy to meet as early as 6:00am,” the email read.
Not a morning person, I cringed, but I knew I had to take her up on it. I thought about watching the city wake up from the vantage point of this river I’d come to love through my own paddling trips up its polluted, yet persevering shores. I thought about starting my day in the wilds of my own backyard before even stepping foot in the office. There was no better time, I realized, for a “boat-erview” on the Anacostia River than 6:00am.
And so it was, that I met Ariel Trahan, Director of Education at the Anacostia Watershed Society, at 6:00am at a boathouse in southeast Washington, D.C. to hop on a 27-foot skiff and ride it up to where the Northeast Branch meets the Northwest Branch in Bladensburg, Maryland to form the Anacostia River. The Anacostia then flows about nine miles to meet the Potomac River, which then goes on to meet the Chesapeake Bay. I’d learn more than ever on this boat ride just how much we all do, in fact, live downstream.
As we pulled away from the dock, and the sound of water and the feel of the breeze sung their beautiful “good morning,” I was ready to chat perils and progress when it comes to urban parks, such as those that neighbor and create the Anacostia Water Trail.
Given that the river has an unmistakable presence of trash floating about, Ariel jumped right in, telling me about a 2007 determination under the Clean Water Act that the Anacostia is severely impaired by trash. Only one of two rivers in the country to receive this designation, it triggered a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) that requires jurisdictions within the river’s watershed to reduce the amount of trash entering the river.
Ariel (AT): Now that they have to get out however much every year, it’s made a lot of the governments and local jurisdictions be like, ok, we actually have to do this—and, so, they find ways to get it out. There are some spots along the river that have these trash traps, that are along the streams, and capture the trash that’s coming in through some of the tributaries. They can count that to the TMDL. They can also count trash cleanups. We do a big Earth Day cleanup each year, and get thousands of pounds of trash out from that with volunteers coming out to various sites along the river. The TMDL was a good way to have some teeth to force local jurisdictions to do something.
I brought you a map of the watershed. So, you can see it’s in part of D.C., part of Montgomery County, Maryland, and part of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Since it’s so many jurisdictions, it makes it tricky to do anything because it’s like, D.C. government, Maryland state government, Prince George’s County government, Montgomery County government, and, since so much of the land is federal, it’s also federal government. There are so many players.
Korrin (KB): It’s just like the woes of the Metro system! The watershed is so much bigger than I had in my head—it extends so far out into Maryland.
AT: It is a pretty big area of land, and it’s funny because everyone thinks of the Anacostia as a D.C. river, but you can see that most of the land that drains into it is in Maryland. About 30% of the watershed is in D.C. Since some people in Maryland think of it as a D.C. river, they think, “It’s not our problem,” and even some officials, say, “No, that’s in D.C.” And, I mean, the river is in D.C., but a lot of what’s draining into it is in Maryland!
KB: So, about the trash, I did notice that the first time I paddled out from Ballpark Boathouse. I was looking around and just so stunned by how much I saw, and I know it can’t just be from people coming down here and dumping their garbage, so could you explain more about how it’s all getting here?
AT: It’s from all the land. The entire watershed is very urban. You have pervious and impervious surfaces. Pervious surfaces are like grass and forests where water can soak into the ground and impervious is all the roads, all the parking lots, places where water can’t soak in, so it just goes into the storm drain. Since the Anacostia watershed is so urbanized, it’s very impervious and it’s all washing in. So, I mean, somebody throws a Snickers wrapper on the ground up in Montgomery County, and that’s ending up down here. Somebody throws a water bottle on the ground, and that gets washed in. It’s coming from that whole landmass that is the watershed.
To me, that is a really powerful message for us—it shows that anyone can help clean it up. You really can make a difference. I can tell visitors—you’re here today on the river, but when you go home, or when you go to work, don’t throw trash on the ground because it’s going to end up here!
KB: Yeah, I mentor this 12-year-old, and took him out kayaking one day. He was surprised by the trash and asked how it got here, so we had a chat about storm drains, and it was really interesting helping him make that connection that even if you can’t see the river when you’re walking around town, your actions affect it.
AT: It’s funny because that’s what I do is work with kids, mostly, and many of them, when we’re talking about it, think they’re supposed to throw it in the storm drain. They think that’s a good thing. Like, yeah, I threw it away; I threw it in the storm drain. But, no, that drains directly to the river! I think a small percentage of the population really understands what a watershed is. They’re just not familiar.
The other thing that happens in D.C., and a lot of older cities in the Midwest and the Northeast, is that they have these combined sewer systems. The thought was that all the wastewater—showers, toilets, sinks, etc.— and all the storm water coming from the streets goes into the same system, and then it all goes to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, and it all gets treated. In a lot of ways, it’s good because it’s all getting treated. In a separate system, the storm water just never gets treated. The problem with the combined sewer system, though, is that when it rains, there’s too much storm water coming in, it overwhelms the system, and then it just flows into the river.
KB: (grimacing) Yeah, I’ve heard a bit about that.
AT: So, that’s what all that construction is over there. It’s for the Clean Rivers Project. That’s a project D.C. Water is doing right now that will make it so that when it rains, instead of it overflowing into the rivers—and it’s not just in the Anacostia; it overflows into the Potomac and Rock Creek, too—it will overflow into this giant tunnel that they’re building that will go to Blue Plains. That’s going to reduce the overflows by like 98%. That’s going to be huge for the river. That’s one of the biggest issues is all of that sewage and trash coming in from the combined sewage overflows.
That came about through a lawsuit the Anacostia Watershed Society was a part of back in the nineties where they were saying…oh! Look! There’s a fox! We saw him there yesterday, and I thought he might be there again. He likes that spot. I think he just likes to lie there in the shade; it’s a little cooler.
That’s the beautiful thing about conducting a “boat-erview”—you never know what might pop up in the middle of a conversation about taking legal action. These welcomed wildlife interruptions came about several times along our travel in the forms of eagles, beavers, cardinals, herons, cormorants, turtles, a Canadian-Snow Goose hybrid named Albie, and tiny, adorable ducklings.
It was an ongoing barrage of just how much life along this forgotten river begs for our attention, asks us to be seen.
Ariel and I continued to chat about the litigation and policy surrounding not just sewage issues, but also efforts to clean up toxins, remove invasive species, and restore wetlands.
We passed lower Beaverdam Creek, and she told me about a cleanup done in the nineties that removed 600 tires from the water in just one day—a result of years of illegal dumping by auto-body shops.
We passed Kingman Island, which I learned was manmade from dredging the river after mass deforestation in the name of tobacco farms caused damaging amounts of sediment. This is how a port that used to be 40-feet deep became the 5-feet deep that it is today.
We passed a wall constructed in the early 1900s by the Army Corps of Engineers along the entire length of both banks of the river, and I learned how this destroyed vital wetlands that relied on water from the changes in tide.
I also learned about notes Captain John Smith wrote in his journal about how wild the river was in the 1600s when he saw it, before urbanization eagerly worked to tame it.
And, just when I thought we’d covered all that could possibly be hurting or have hurt the Anacostia, I heard three words strung together in a way only the government can make me giggle—Goose Management Plan. I learned how the over-hunting of Canadian Geese in the thirties and forties led to the importation of geese from colder climates. Since D.C. never got cold enough to trigger these ones to migrate, they took up a year-round residency along the river and now eat key wetland plants in the spring before they have a chance to grow strong enough to sustain themselves.
I was done with perils. I was overwhelmed by perils. I was ready to talk progress.
KB: So, what kind of work are you doing with the Anacostia Watershed Society, and how long have you been doing this?
AT: I’ve worked here for about 7 years, and I run our education programs. We have an education department where we work with schools, and also with adults. With schools, we have a number of different programs. They’re all 3-part programs. In the Chesapeake Bay region, there are these things called MWEEs, which stands for Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences. The goal, as established by the D.C. mayor and the governors of the Chesapeake Bay areas in the Chesapeake Bay 2000 Agreement, is that every kid that lives near the Chesapeake Bay has one of these MWEEs before they graduate from high school.
The MWEE is preparation, action, reflection. We do the prep in the classroom teaching lessons about watersheds, then they come out and do an action project focused on cleaning up the Anacostia, and then for their reflection they come out on the boat with us and do a tour on the river. We work with about 3,000 kids to do MWEEs every year.
Ariel went on to tell me more about the different educational programs the Anacostia Watershed Society offers, including opportunities for kids to grow wetland plants or raise American Shad in their classrooms to then introduce into the watershed.
Most of the wetlands you see are ones that have been planted. You also have these spots where we’ve reintroduced seeds and plants, but now they’re starting to spread to areas where we haven’t planted them, and that’s really exciting. That over there is one that has come about on its own! That’s really great news.
KB: Do you have a favorite memory or story from your work?
AT: Because we work with schools so much, that’s a really great way to reach people. I’ll see kids, and especially those who aren’t necessarily the star students, who maybe struggle, come out to the river and be really into it. They’re making this connection, they’re understanding, they’re planting. Yesterday, we had these 7th graders canoeing; half of them were canoeing in the morning and the other half were doing water quality testing, and then they switched. When I switched the groups, the kids from the morning, these two boys, were like, can we go again? Can we go canoeing again? So, those kids who at the beginning are too tough, too cool for school—but then they’re into it!
Some schools struggle to bring students out because their principal is more focused on testing and reading. But, at one of our meetings, we had a teacher who was like, all these administrators want our kids to be engaged and excited and having a discussion, and you know what? Where did I have the best moment of the school year with my students? Out in a boat in the middle of the Anacostia River. My kids were into it, they were engaged, and they were asking questions and learning about their community. For me, that’s super rewarding. This is where people can learn. It’s their real world.
Previously, before moving here, I was living in New Hampshire doing outdoor education at a residential center. We had kids from Boston, and other parts of New Hampshire that would come and stay for a week, and we’d do programming with them. Which, I loved, but I also really wanted to do it more in an urban area because I felt like bringing them there kind of further perpetuated this thing of, like, nature is separate from you. It’s somewhere you have to go that’s not part of your everyday life.
One of the things I love so much about here is that it’s where you live. This river is in your city. It’s not like we went on a field trip to the Anacostia and we’re never going there again. No, this is your city, and this is trash that could’ve come from your school.
KB: How has the increase in recreation on the river affected restoration efforts?
AT: About 5, maybe 6, years ago, we started doing these free paddle nights because there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for recreation on the river. We started doing them to show the general public that this is somewhere you can come, this is beautiful. The first year we’d get 20, 30 people a night. The next year we started getting 60, 70. Last year, we got like 90 or 100 people coming out. That was amazing.
I think the recreation definitely helps the restoration because we are building this constituency of people who care and who are going to demand the cleanup.
The recreation helps change people’s perception. This year, we’re not doing just straight paddle nights. We’re doing a Discovery Series, kind of a paddle night 2.0—new and improved! We’re still doing it every Thursday at different spots along the river, but some of them are going to be the paddle nights we’ve always done, some will be on this motorized boat since some people aren’t comfortable with paddling—and we want to get them on the river too—and we’ll also be doing nature hikes along new trails and guided canoe tours into Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and Kingman Island. It’s a variety of opportunities for people, so more accessible to everybody.
KB: Speaking of access, D.C.’s growth has caused a lot of concerns over gentrification. Many of the communities neighboring the Anacostia River face this redevelopment threat. So, how do we think about our urban parks and their restoration in ways that include more people, rather than pushing them out?
AT: That’s definitely something that we think about a lot. We don’t want it to be like, how can we clean up the Anacostia so that more people can bring their yachts? We very intentionally work with communities along the river, and I think that’s why our school-based programs are so important—because that’s a way to get into those communities in a way that’s meaningful.
Number one, it’s not like we are just saying, ok, who from this school is interested in doing this? No, this entire class is doing this, everyone is coming out onto the river. Then they’re going to go home and tell their parents about it. Then we have opportunities like the Discovery Series. I tell every kid who comes out—tell your parents you had fun, then come out on Thursday and they can see the river, too, they can come on the boat, too.
A lot of organizations doing environmental work in urban areas struggle to get the trust of people in those areas—like, who are you coming in and telling me I should care about this river? You build that trust with people so that it’s not like, ok, Ariel is cleaning up the river, so Ariel can come out and it’s nice and clean for her. No, we are cleaning this up together, the kids are working alongside us, they’re growing the plants, planting them out there. So, they have this ownership in restoring it.
We want more people to come to the parks. We want more people to come to Anacostia Park, to Kenilworth Park, but we want the people who live near there to come. Anybody can come, but we don’t want it to be we’re cleaning up this river so people from other parts of the city can come. No, we’re cleaning it with the community for the community.
Ariel and I went on to chat about advocacy efforts and legislation, such as the 5-cent bag tax and Styrofoam ban in D.C., that have added to the ever-growing efforts to get the Anacostia River swimmable and fishable by 2025.
As we chatted, I felt inspired by just how much progress there is in the face of so many perils. I was also reminded of just how special urban parks really are, and that we don’t need to travel to far-off, pristine lands to find a way to connect to our earth.
The Anacostia Watershed Society isn’t just restoring a river—it’s rebuilding the relationship of people to that river. And learning that, being able to be a part of that, was worth every minute of my early morning start to hop on a boat and watch the city wake-up from this never-again-forgotten river.