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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.


Rainwater Collection: EPA Proposes Rules in D.C.

By Daniela Feldman  //  Development, Pollution, Stormwater Runoff  //  1 Comment

Seeking to curb pollution from storm water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  has announced a proposal that will mandate green roofs, rain barrels and other measures to trap dirty rainwater in new and redeveloped areas of Washington, D.C., according to an article in the Washington Post.

The EPA proposal would require developers to trap 90 percent of water that falls on an area during a storm, the article says. The hope is that pollution, chemicals and trash would be caught in rain barrels or absorbed by green roofs, thus minimizing the runoff into rivers that lead to the Chesapeake Bay.

Labeled at the fastest growing cause of pollution to the Chesapeake,  storm water is a huge issue nationwide. As American cities and suburbs expand, development and the amount of impervious surfaces increase, causing dirty water to flow into fresh waters after big storms.

The EPA plan for the District would require developers to trap the first 1.2 inches of rain that falls during a storm. Federal buildings would be required to trap the first 1.7 inches.  This plan is aimed at D.C.’s storm-sewer system as a way to revamp the way the city handles contaminated water.


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.


Will Offshore Drilling Harm the Bay?

By Daniela Feldman  //  Development, Government, Regulation  //  41 Comments

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a statement opposing President Barack Obama’s decision to allow offshore gas and oil drilling, suggesting that drilling off the coast of Virginia could endanger various species, including the blue crab.

The CBF considers this action a contradiction to the executive order signed last May, which reaffirmed the president’s commitment to restoring the Chesapeake Bay. In a blog post by Tom Pelton on CBF’s Bay Daily, Pelton says that drilling in the Atlantic has “long been banned by the federal government, and for good reasons.”

“America needs to break its addiction to oil,” he wrote on March 31, the day the president announced his new energy plan. ” And you don’t break an addiction by increasing your supply.  To make an analogy, if America had an alcohol problem, you wouldn’t solve the problem by hunting around for liquor stores where you could buy more and cheaper vodka.”

On the Washington Post’s Planet Panel blog, Dr. Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, explained the amount of oil off the Mid-Atlantic coast will supply the United States’ consumption needs for just a few weeks. Boesch, like many other scientists and experts, suggested the nation should cut its dependence on oil by seeking more efficient sources.

Pending the release of details about the offshore drilling plan, it is hard to fully assess the potential environmental impact. Yet clearly, there are tensions between preserving environmental resources and developing sustainable energy sources. It will be interesting to see how these tensions unfold and what drilling off the shore of Virginia will do to the already dire state of the bay.


EPA Guidelines Recommend Porous Paving and Green Roofs

By Brian Hooks  //  Development, Government, Politics, Stormwater Runoff  //  19 Comments

The draft guidelines released by the EPA on March 22 endorse, among other practices, the installation of porous pavement and green roofs on federal lands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed –recommendations apparently unaffected by heated debate in Annapolis about how to handle the troubled bay ecosystem.

Cisterns for collecting and reusing rainwater as well as added vegetation were also recommended in the EPA guidelines.  According to the guidance draft, these practices were chosen “based on known performance data and cost.”

Low-Impact Development (LID) technology, according to the EPA, “…is now well-proven and shown to be adaptable for implementation at new development, redevelopment, and retrofit sites.” The guidelines also state that LID practices are “necessary to achieve the goals of protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay.”

These recommendations fall under stormwater management, one piece of the bay restoration puzzle, which also includes changes in agricultural and political practices. The guidelines are still a draft, subject to additional scrutiny and comment from the public and private sectors of the watershed during the next month.

Citing practices taken in 2004 by the City of Portland, Ore., the draft lists the following conservation guidelines:

  • Fitting development to the terrain to minimize land disturbance
  • Confining construction activities to the least area necessary and away from critical areas
  • Preserving areas with natural vegetation (especially forested areas) as much as possible
  • On sites with a mix of soil types, locating impervious areas over less permeable soil (e.g., till), and trying to restrict development over more porous soils (e.g., outwash)
  • Clustering buildings together
  • Minimizing impervious areas
  • Maintaining and using the natural drainage patterns

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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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