Browsing articles by " Justin Karp"

Fixing Anacostia Pollution Won’t Be Quick

A young Eastern painted turtle, covered in algae, basks on some driftwood while a discarded spray paint can floats nearby in the Anacostia River.

A young Eastern painted turtle, covered in algae, basks on some driftwood while a discarded spray paint can floats nearby in the Anacostia River. (News21 photo by Jason Lenhart)

WASHINGTON – Renovations to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant — needed to help shore up an antiquated sewer system in the nation’s capital — are a year ahead of schedule, with completion expected in 2014, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty says.

But even with the updates, controlling raw sewage runoff into the Anacostia River during heavy rains may remain an issue until at least 2018, say the District’s water and sewer authority and environmental advocates.

The long-standing problem: There isn’t enough space in combined sewage and stormwater pipes to effectively transport untreated runoff to the Blue Plains plant.

“When those pipes reach capacity, overflow valves flip over,” says Brent Bolin, director of advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society. “Essentially, raw sewage is discharged into the Anacostia River.”

Urban development in the Anacostia watershed has exacerbated the problem, he says. “As D.C. gets more and more built out, there’s more and more impervious surface and more and more runoff.”

The long-term solution, Bolin says, is to dig an eight-mile long tunnel that will capture and store excess storm water until it can be processed at Blue Plains. The Metrorail-sized tube will run from near RFK Memorial Stadium to Blue Plains.

“We applaud that they’re addressing the problem,” Bolin says. “But it’s a big engineering fix. It’s going to be a process to get through it.”

Currently, when overflows occur, thousands of gallons of polluted stormwater flood the river, exacerbating poor conditions of a river already deemed unsafe for swimming or fishing. (See map of overflow points.)

The overflows occur as many as 80 times a year, D.C. Water officials say. Their frequency is estimated using a model based on the amount of rainfall in a given year.

The renovation and tunnel fixes could reduce the number of combined sewer overflows to two a year, D.C. Water officials say. Reaching zero would make the cost of the project “magnitudes higher” than the current $2.5 billion price tag, according to analyses by D.C. Water and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The move to stifle sewage overflow events has been going on for more than 50 years, but the history of the sewer system goes back more than a century. In the late 1800s, Washington’s combined sewer system was considered to represent the best engineering standards available.

Fenty acknowledged after a meeting this month with the governors of Maryland and Virginia and environmental leaders that oversight could be better. “In the history of our city, our great nation’s capital, we haven’t always protected the rivers,” he said.

D.C. Water’s wide-ranging, $2.5 billion program includes constructing runoff tunnels to alleviate pressure on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek.

“Right now, the grid is overwhelmed,” Bolin says. “There are two things you can do: You can give an outlet to the grid, or you can prevent the inputs.”

Source controls such as increased street sweeping, adding catch basins, and promoting low-impact development and green roofs could help alleviate the stress on the combined sewer, Bolin says.

–by Justin Karp


All Signs Point to the Anacostia

By Justin Karp  //  Bay Education, Cleanup, environmentalism  //  59 Comments

News21 photo by Justin Karp

Signs like the one above, which dot storm drains throughout the portion of Prince George’s County that lies in the Anacostia River watershed, are part of the county’s efforts to curtail pollution and dumping.

Samuel Moki, associate director of the Environmental Services Division of the Prince George’s County Department of Environmental Resources, says simple steps such as installing these street signs go a long way toward educating the public on how they can help to restore the Anacostia.

Moki says the billion-dollar, multi-agency and multi-state Anacostia restoration effort is cleaning up what has been one of the most polluted and neglected watersheds in the United States.

–by Justin Karp


Suburbanites Disconnected from Impact on Anacostia

WASHINGTON – The stream that runs behind the houses in Salil Kharkar’s Silver Spring neighborhood impacts the quality of the water in the Anacostia River, just downstream.

The problem is that others on the block might not know that.

“There are strong communities that want to protect their own watersheds,” says Kharkar, a wastewater treatment engineer for D.C. Water.

But, he says, they’re unaware their watershed is the Anacostia’s.

The Anacostia River watershed extends for 176 square miles across Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Washington, D.C. — but only 38 square miles lie in the city itself. The rest encompasses dozens of streams, creeks and branches that extend north into suburban Maryland.

A substantial amount of the multi-million dollar Anacostia cleanup focuses on the 6.8 miles of river that flow through the nation’s capital. But Kharkar and others believe that real progress can’t be made until residents of the watershed living outside the city are educated about the impact of their actions.

“People outside the environmental community are really buying into a future where the Anacostia River is an amenity to the community,” says Brent Bolin, director of advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society. But, he says, to get there, more awareness is needed.

While trash buildup and stormwater runoff from streets and parking lots remain the two biggest pollution problems plaguing the river, sediment and nitrogen runoff from upstream sources, such as Sligo Creek, the Northeast and Northwest branches and other Maryland streams, flow unchecked into the Anacostia.

“It’s sort of just letting people know that simple things they can do really make a difference,” Bolin says. “People don’t want to do the wrong thing. They just don’t know what the right thing is.”

He says steps as simple as properly disposing of grass clippings and other yard waste instead of dumping them into streams and creeks can go a long way toward reducing the amount of toxic nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that plague the watershed.

Carlton Ray, who administers a long-term control plan for D.C. Water, says that environmental stewardship is not at the top of the minds of many watershed residents.

“People are struggling to put macaroni and cheese on the table and are busy rushing their kids to soccer practice,” he says. “It doesn’t leave much time for them to ask, ‘What’s this thing about the watershed?’ ”

The long-term control plan is the utility’s effort to significantly reduce the amount of untreated sewage overflow entering the Anacostia from point sources during heavy rains. But both he and Kharkar agree this overflow is only part of the pollution problem in the Anacostia and that additional cleanup efforts from outside the city’s boundaries are vital.

“It’s something that needs to continue to be nurtured,” Ray says.

Ken Yetman, division chief for watershed assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says it doesn’t help that the District sees a disproportionate benefit from a clean river.

“There [are] billions of dollars being invested in new real estate down there along the Anacostia,” he says. “A healthier river will increase property value and will be a greater asset to the District.”

But ultimately, Yetman said, if suburbanites take care of their local streams, “it benefits those downstream. … The cumulative effect is that they care about the [Anacostia] river.”

–by Justin Karp


EPA, Local Governments Propose Anacostia Dumping Limits

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with the District of Columbia and Maryland, is imposing a new, lower Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) on the Anacostia River, the agency announced Friday.

Facing increasing trash, runoff and pollution levels throughout the Anacostia watershed, the District and the state are working with the EPA to enact the new TMDL.

The Anacostia will be only the second river in the country and the first in the Mid-Atlantic with a trash dumping limit. The Los Angeles River, which runs from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean near Long Beach in Southern California, is the other.

A draft copy of the new Anacostia TMDL cites several ways that trash buildup will be reduced, including:

  • new storm drain capturing technology
  • curtailing of illicit dumping
  • regulation of trash removal and prevention

The EPA made this announcement only four days after the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Project released a $1.7 billion plan to clean up the river, its branches and the wetlands surrounding it.

About 60 of the over 700 projects the plan outlined involved trash regulation and collection along the banks of the river and its offshoot waterways, which extend into Montgomery and Prince George’s County.


Anacostia Cleanup Begins in Earnest

Less than a week after the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Project announced a $1.7 billion effort to restore and clean up the trash-strewn, polluted river, the Anacostia Watershed Society began the effort with a bang.

In one of many events throughout the National Capital region to mark the 40th Earth Day, the AWS held a large river cleanup at nearly 30 sites throughout the Anacostia watershed, which reaches from the District to Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Cleanup sites stretched from as far north as Aspen Hill and Colesville to the banks of the Anacostia directly across the river from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Cleanup organizers told WTOP Radio that Anacostia Park can still be one of the most vibrant and environmentally sound areas of Washington D.C., but trash and pollutants still line the banks of the river.

Watershed Society officials said nearly 60 tons of garbage were removed from the river in the latter half of 2009. They said that the D.C. bag tax has also already helped in cutting down the number of plastic shopping bags they’re finding in the park and along the water.

The Earth Day celebration and cleanup effort was the first major project taken by environmentalists since the AWRP released the multi-part plan to restore the heavily polluted river.

The plan calls for over 700 different projects including:

  • retrofitting stormwater runoff facilities
  • restoring streams
  • creating and restoring natural wetlands
  • fish blockage removal
  • reforestation
  • riparian renewal
  • trash reduction
  • parkland acquisition

AWRP worked with the governments of the District, Maryland, Virginia, the EPA and Prince George’s and Montgomery to produce the report and action plan.


D.C.’s ‘Forgotten River’ To Enter New Stage of Restoration

The Anacostia River runs all of 8.4 miles from stem to tip.

Those 8.4 miles of water are among the dirtiest in the nation, yet flow mere miles from the U.S. Capitol Building.

Thanks to heavy runoff from the Washington Navy Yard, antiquated and aging sewer systems in the Near Southeast neighborhood of Washington and heavy amounts of raw sewage, the Anacostia is by far one of the most polluted bodies of water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

And, while D.C.’s other river, the Potomac, continues to see major and continued cleanup and maintenance efforts, the Anacostia has sat for years collecting trash and toxic pathogens. Though revitalization of the Anacostia’s waterfront neighborhoods has progressed, the river itself continues to languish.

Now, though, the mobilization begins.

On Monday, the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership, along with several local politicians, will unveil a new restoration plan for those 8.4 miles of river that snake through the east side of Washington.

Release of the plan comes in the wake of a Department of the Environment study showing that plastic shopping bags made up 21 percent of the trash in the Anacostia, a study that prompted the city to enact a five-cent bag tax to raise funds for cleanup efforts.

Over the next few weeks and into the summer, I’ll be taking a look at what activists, politicians and others are doing to restore these 8.4 miles of river. I’ll also be looking at efforts to revitalize the Southwest Waterfront area of D.C. as a bustling business and residential district , to see how that revitalization might affect efforts to clean up the Anacostia.


Sweeping Away Bay Pollutants in D.C.

By Justin Karp  //  Stormwater Runoff  //  33 Comments

If you find yourself with a pesky $30 ticket for for illegally parking in the District of Columbia during street-sweeping hours this year, consider it a donation toward cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

D.C. enacted opposite-side-of-the-street parking laws this month as the city gears up for street sweepers to take on the roads of the national capital.

As irritating as it might be for citizens to have to change their parking habits, environmentalists believe the sweepers are doing a public service by helping control toxic runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

According to WTOP Radio, street sweepers remove 40,000 pounds of oil and grease from District streets every month. That removal leads to a drop of 3,000 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous runoff per month that usually finds its way into the highly polluted Anacostia and Potomac rivers, which in turn empty into the bay.

So anything the city can do to control runoff, especially to the troubled Anacostia, is seen as a step forward for bay restoration efforts. In addition to runoff from city streets, the District’s shoddy sewer system dumps billions of gallons of raw sewage into the river, and much sediment runs off from the Washington Navy Yard.


Chesapeake Bay’s Shifting Goal Line

By Justin Karp  //  Funding, Government, Politics  //  21 Comments

In so many things written, spoken and published about the Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, much of those efforts were directed toward reaching certain goals by the year 2010.

Three months into that supposedly magical year, the bay still faces most of the same problems at the same levels that cleanup advocates sought to rectify by this year.

Recently, the states within the Chesapeake’s watershed, most notably Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, resolved to implement two-year goals rather than the decade-long ones they have previously set forth.

Hwever, not everyone seems convinced the two-year goals will be any more attainable than the decade-long goals.

Tthe Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Bay Daily blog recently noted that Maryland has not spent much of the money in the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund raised through a law the General Assembly enacted in 2007. The blog reported that Maryland Governor O’Malley proposed to spend more of the money this year and added:

So let’s at least give Governor O’Malley for moving in the right direction.  But now the Maryland General Assembly is talking about cutting O’Malley $20 million in half, to $10 million (or even less), for the upcoming fiscal year.

The cuts would mean lots more pollution flowing into the Bay. And they are also very likely to mean that Maryland will miss one of its first “milestones.”

The blog said the new two-year goals will, if nothing else, lead to more accountability among politicians in the bay states. If voters aren’t satisfied with what their elected officials are doing to help the bay cleanup, the officials could find themselves out of a job more quickly.

However, it will be up to those same voters to pay closer attention to the goals and how states are progressing toward meeting them. If they don’t, citizens and advocates within the watershed will just find themselves frustrated about the lack of progress every two years rather than every 10.


Floundering Around – More Limits on Fisheries

By Justin Karp  //  Fishing Industry  //  32 Comments

As the weather warms up and spring approaches across the Delmarva Peninsula, amateur and professional fishermen and watermen are gearing up to hit the Chesapeake Bay.

However, the struggle between government agencies and those who rely on the bay for recreation or a living has found a new front: flounder.

According to The Daily Times, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service has decided to shorten the annual flounder catching season from the expected seven months to just five and impose a minimum on the size of fish that anglers can catch and keep.

Fishermen and anglers argue that the season is too short and may not lead to a profitable or fruitful catch in 2010.

The minimum catch size, which this year will be set at 18.5 inches, will bring Maryland in line with neighboring states in the region. Delaware and New Jersey also impose a minimum.

There’s a definite trickle-down effect to consider. As Ocean City baiter Monty Hawkins states in the article, two fewer months of flounder fishing means two fewer months that local tackle and bait shops are open and can do business. That also could affect the number of people who come to Ocean City and other flounder-fishing areas on the Eastern Shore, which could lead to less business at local restaurants, hotels, other fishing-related industries and other seasonal businesses that rely on recreational anglers and fishermen to remain profitable.


Bay Oysters Fight Another Threat – Poaching

By Justin Karp  //  Fishing Industry, Regulation  //  2 Comments

As if the dwindling population of oysters, one of the last natural filters of the water in the Chesapeake Bay, needed another challenge to their survival, they’ve got one.

Maryland’s Capital News Service reported this week that the state government is trying to take strong action to prevent the rise of oyster poaching among fishermen in the bay.

Poaching, the illegal trapping and keeping of wild animals or plants against state or federal regulations, came to light in Maryland again a few weeks ago when two fishers, Zachary Seamen and Edward Lowery, were both charged with multiple counts regarding illegal oyster trapping activity. It wasn’t the first offense for either of them.

The report also says that the number of poaching violations in Maryland has risen each year since 2006, seeing a spike between 2008 and 2009, when the number of poaching charged more than doubled.

There are a lot of things regarding the health of wildlife in the bay (and the bay itself) that will continue to take years to fix. Cleaning up the water, reducing storm water runoff and managing the bustling chicken processing industry aren’t things that can be quickly rectified.

However, poaching seems to be, thanks to the efforts of citizens and politicians alike. Responsible fishermen are looking out after their own and reporting violators to authorities. The number of poaching incidents may have skyrocketed, but so have the number of people caught doing it, which in turn removes them from the water entirely.

About Us

Bay on the Brink is a multimedia reporting project examining the fate of the Chesapeake Bay. It is produced by fellows at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism as part of News21, a consortium of journalism schools. This is the fellows' blog. The full project site is here:
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