While on a recent bike ride on the eastern side of the Anacostia up to Bladensburg County Park, I suddenly had the feeling of being in the country while cycling in the heart of the city. Kayakers were also enjoying the serenity and beauty of the river, as were runners and walkers. A thought that I frequently have regarding the river struck me again – this is our version of Rock Creek Park on this side of the city.
The awareness of the Anacostia River and its river corridor has certainly increased over the past decade, following the 2003 adoption of the comprehensive Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI) Framework Plan as public policy. The AWI Plan set in motion a series of events leading to a fuller appreciation of the Anacostia River and its myriad assets such as:
- Hains Point and the Washington Channel
- Poplar Point
- The Southeast Federal Center – now the Yards development
- Kingman Island
- The RFK lands
- Anacostia National Park
- Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
- The National Arboretum
- Bladensburg County Park
- The new 11th Street bridges
A number of public improvements have accelerated the community’s appreciation of this corridor. They include construction of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail; construction of public parks that connect people to the river such as Diamond Teague Park and Piers and Yards Park; the opening of Nationals Park; the planning and development of The Wharf project; the ongoing cleanup and utilization of Kingman Island; the development of the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood; ongoing shoreline and wetlands restoration projects; and the planning for the 11th Street Bridge Park.
New marinas and kayaking facilities like the Yards Marina and Capital SUP have opened on the Anacostia as well, and ferry service from Alexandria to Nats Park on game days continues to introduce the public to the river.
Advocacy of the Anacostia has played a significant role in raising awareness of the river’s cleanup and importance as a community asset. Advocates have been effective in a number of programs that they offer:
- Trash cleanups along the river and its creek tributaries
- Educational boat rides that introduce people to the river
- Wetlands restoration projects and shoreline stabilization
- Monitoring of water quality levels, especially after rain events
- Partnerships with schools to introduce children to the river and educate them on its value and cleanup
- Research into the pollutants in the river’s water as well as the sediments
Many of these advocacy organizations are located in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood – either in headquarters offices or satellite facilities – including the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, Living Classrooms, and the Earth Conservation Corps. The Anacostia Waterfront Trust is a fairly new organization that is creating overall partnerships between all advocacy groups and the National Park Service (NPS) in hopes of cultivating positive actions similar to the Trust for the National Mall.
DC Water is also playing a critical role in the ongoing cleanup of the Anacostia through the DC Clean Rivers project. This approximately $2 billion project involves the boring of three tunnels and drop shafts that will serve as underground cisterns to collect combined stormwater and sanitary sewer overflow and prevent it from entering the river. The 24-foot diameter tunnels are expected to come into service in the spring of 2018 and will eliminate 96 percent of the source pollutants from the District. The DC Clean Rivers project could bring swimming back to the Anacostia in as little as two years. As a tidal river, it will take some time for the river to cleanse itself of the contaminated waters.
The Mayor’s Steering Committee for a Cleaner Anacostia is an appointed task force chaired by former Mayor Tony Williams and Tommy Wells, director of the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE). The committee and DOEE are researching the levels of pollutants in the river sediments and where the greatest concentrations occur. These investigations will hopefully result in a strategy for containing the pollutants or dredging the river.
Next year will be the 100-year anniversary of Anacostia Park, owned and operated by the NPS. This linear park on the east side of the Anacostia is a wonderful asset to numerous communities and provides access to the river through a hike/bike trail, public facilities, picnic areas, sports fields, and a boat launch. Numerous groups hope to partner with the NPS in this centennial celebration.
On Aug. 10, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced the design/build team for the construction of the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. South Capitol Bridgebuilders, a joint venture of Archer Western Construction and Granite Construction, with AECOM as the lead designer, released the preliminary design of the bridge, a series of three elegant arches that connects the Capitol Riverfront and Ward 6 to Anacostia and Ward 8.
The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge serves as a gateway to the Federal City from Andrews Air Force Base, and the new bridge will enhance pedestrian and bicycle connections to the Anacostia River with a 16-foot-wide pathway on each side of the span. Please visit www.newfrederickdouglassbridge.com to view a video of the bridge and the ellipses on the north and south sides of the bridge.
Bridge construction should start in late 2017 or early 2018 and have a four-year duration. The next phase of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail can then be constructed under the bridge to connect to the Buzzard Point subarea of the Capitol Riverfront. The NPS is preparing for an environmental impact study (EIS) for its former marina lands on Buzzard Point, which will result in a master plan for the site and better access to the river and connection to the trail.
More than just a body of water, the Anacostia is a series of destinations, part of over 1,200 acres of public parks and lands that are the “lungs” of the river corridor. They contain forests, wetlands, and watersheds that provide habitat for an increasing variety of birds, fish, and other animals. Bald eagles are often sighted along the river, and osprey, cranes, and shad call the river home as well.
Parks, marinas, and the Riverwalk Trail are providing river access in responsible ways for the communities that are adjacent to the Anacostia, as well as visitors to the river. It will be wonderful to see the Anacostia when it is a full-contact, swimmable river and when its navigation is preserved through limited dredging efforts. A once neglected and polluted river is finally turning a corner on water quality, wetlands, and natural habitat, as well as perceived value as a citywide asset. Thanks to hundreds of advocates and the investment of billions of dollars, the Anacostia is heading to a healthier future.
Michael Stevens is president of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID).