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The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative:
Development and the Environment
(Released May 2004)



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Often called the nation's forgotten river, the Anacostia was integral to Pierre L'Enfant's initial plan for Washington, DC, yet currently lies polluted and neglected. The signing of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, on March 22, 2000, marked the start of a major effort to change this, with intensive revitalization following the success of development projects on the west side of DC. The plan is part of a trend in the United States and Europe of riverside urban revitalization. Indeed, the Anacostia initiative is the first of eight such pilot projects recently initiated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.1 As such, it will be a crucial test case, in the evolving fields of urban design and environmental best practices, of how urban development and environmental clean-up can proceed hand-in-hand.

The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative envisions a mixed-use network of residential space, offices, shopping, parks, trails, recreational areas, and historic sites, all around a green and shining river. This attempt at total transformation will mean cleaning up one of the ten dirtiest rivers in the United States in one of the nation's most impoverished areas. It will require the cooperation of government agencies at the local, regional, state, and federal level, as well as numerous community groups and businesses. To coordinate this array of institutions, in 2003 the city of Washington introduced legislation to create a waterfront corporation. Federal legislation, too, has been introduced to help in funding the development.

Map of Anacostia Watershed

Cleaning up the Anacostia means far more than treating a few major facilities (point-source pollution). Garbage, pesticides, oil, and chemicals carried into the river from water run-off (non-point-source pollution) may present the greater challenge. While human populations always create some pollution, population density is only one of a number of interacting factors that affect the environment (although some think that it drives the others). Land-use, transportation, and waste treatment are other major factors. Indeed, the Washington, DC area grew dirtier even as the population sank from a peak of 800,000 in 1950, to somewhat over 500,000 at the end of the 20th century.2 Anacostia redevelopment is the next stage in a comprehensive revitalization of the entire DC area. As Uwe Brandes, Project Manager for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, explains, "We want to see this river corridor reintegrated with daily life in the city of Washington."3

Threats to the Anacostia Ecosystem

A great portion of the pollution in the Anacostia does not come from local sources but is carried downstream from tributaries in Maryland. Because both urban and suburban development means covering large territories with impervious surfaces such as cement, rainwater that at one time would have been absorbed into the soil instead is sent cascading into the river. The flooding brings with it sediment and chemicals far beyond the river's carrying capacity.

Several pollution sources contribute to the decline in water quality. During rainstorms, raw sewage overflows into the Anacostia. Exposed sewer pipes also increase the river's coliform level, the amount of untreated bacteria from human and animal wastes, altering the rivers ecological balance. Swimming and drinking are dangerous in such water due to the high level of disease-causing bacteria. Another key component of water health is maintaining the right amount of dissolved oxygen. Fish need dissolved oxygen to survive, but too much is harmful. Immediately after a storm the Anacostia has an extremely high dissolved oxygen level, but this quickly shrinks to unhealthy levels due to microorganisms consuming the organic compounds also washed into the river.4 Pesticides join the flow of contaminants, as do gasoline and oil, which are a major source of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Car oil, especially, could be easily controlled through recycling.

One method of measuring water quality and ecosystem health is by studying selected species, called indicator species. Usually native to the water being examined, indicator species are vulnerable to relatively small changes, and hence act as a kind of environmental barometer. In the Anacostia, one such species is the Brown Bullhead, Ameiurus nebulosus, which has long shown a high incidence of liver and skin cancer. PAHs are believed to be the key factor causing these cancers, a hypothesis bolstered by a recent study.5 Yet the mix of factors contributing to the tumors is unclear, particularly given the number of pollutants in the Anacostia. The study's primary author, Alfred Pinkney, explains that "the presence of all chemicals and persistent raw sewage may weaken the immune system."6 Still, the species is useful for monitoring purposes. The study concludes that, "as the river is remediated, tumor surveys can serve as a useful tool for monitoring the recovery of the ecosystem."

invasive ivy
Invasive ivy strangles a tree at Sligo Creek

A more natural threat to the Anacostia is invasive species, such as Asian bamboo that drives out native plants. Purple Loosestrife and English Ivy are only two of the numerous invasive vines that encircle tree trunks; these may appear to strollers as one of nature's lovelier phenomena, but they strangle and kill their host trees. Besides clogging waterflow, as invasive plants replace native species, they often destroy root systems that prevent erosion, thus increasing the build up of sediment into nearby water. The banks adjacent to the Anacostia abound with a faster-moving invasive species: Canadian Geese, which hinder vegetation restoration by eating seedlings, and whose droppings wash into the Anacostia in unhealthy amounts. Many of these birds are Canadian in name only; they do not migrate, and have become year-round native Washingtonians.

Clean-Up Initiatives: Integration at Multiple Levels

To reinvigorate urban life around the Anacostia, a trio of players must work together: government, business, and community groups. A number of conservation projects are working to restore the river's health, from small community efforts to large government ones. One project requiring government intervention involves stormwater runoff, an especially bad problem due to the area's antiquated sewer system, which combines rainwater flow and human sewage. New sewer tunnels are currently being built, as the start of a 25-year plan (depending on funding) to divert stormwater overflow into the nearby Blue Plains water treatment plant.7 Transportation projects are another major piece of the revival puzzle that government provides. Major roads are to be reoriented and bridges redesigned to handle traffic flow smoothly. The currently fragmented park systems are to be integrated into neighborhoods and transportation networks. Development around Metro stations, plus the construction of a new trolley, or light-rail system, will minimize long automobile trips and the pollution they create. If all goes as planned, as the human population increases in the numerous undeveloped spaces in Eastern DC, such emissions problems as PAH and unhealthy ozone levels will actually shrink.

Brandes explains the Waterfront Initiative as a Smart Growth project, which will fill in unused space with businesses and residential units, creating compact, walkable communities: "We have to be smart about where this development is. If we push it all out to Loudoun County [Virginia] that is going to have devastating effects on the region's air quality, on the region's water quality." Brandes sees a sprawling, car-oriented development with excess miles of infrastructure as a large part of the problem. As the solution, he actively promotes live-where-you-work strategies.

Anacostia cleanup
Volunteers at an Anacostia cleanup day

The ecological and urban problems of the Anacostia extend far beyond the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Maryland's Prince George's County, as well as Montgomery County, both north of DC, are part of the problem, and also part of the solution. A 1990s project in Montgomery County provides an example of how government intervention can help clean up tributaries. The project dug three holding ponds to prevent storm water from flooding into Sligo Creek, built rip rap, or rocky walls, along stream banks to counteract the erosion that washes sediment into the river, and inserted resins into damaged sewer pipes, a process known as insituforming.8 Yet government intervention isnt enough. Particularly for non-point-source pollution, community education and intervention is necessary. The Anacostia Watershed Society is the major group active in organizing citizens; its projects include monitoring water quality, providing field trips to the river for schoolchildren, and organizing quarterly clean-up days. Upstream, the Friends of Sligo Creek assigns individual stewards who are intimately familiar with one-mile sections of the creek. Beyond cleaning up garbage, these groups are also involved in planting trees and other vegetation, and in the endless fight against invasive species.

Besides government and community groups, the third agency necessary for providing a clean river is the business sector, which increasingly accepts a vision of inner-city development. Besides being willing to locate along key urban transportation routes, such as Metro stations, businesses serve the community through ecologically friendly practices. Low Impact Development (LID) is a term for conservation measures that involve business and community participation. LID increases the percentage of porous surfaces through techniques that blend the oldest and the newest design concepts, such as rain gardens, rain barrels, grassed swales, green roofs, and narrow roads. LID basically employs natural techniques to soak up or redirect rainwater, and prevent dirty runoff and erosion. It also saves upkeep costs on residential properties, making it both ecologically and financially friendly.9

Those who dismiss all development as environmentally harmful accept a rigid and old-fashioned view. As Brandes argues, "What we have to get out of is the mentality that development is bad. It's the type of development that is bad. Development is good for the environment if done properly." Sustainability is not a luxurious add-on for development; it is a necessity, integral to the whole process. If successful, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative may help end the bifurcation between Washington, DC as the capital of the most powerful nation in the world and its degraded physical status. It may also make Washington a 21st century leader in urban development, in creating an ecologically innovative city friendly to business and to it's citizens.

The Anacostia Watershed Initiative will incorporate a number of environmental practices, such as Low Impact Development and Smart Growth, that it has inherited from the experience of previous urban development projects. Some of these will likely prove huge successes; others may very well fail. This is part of the process of developing environmental best practices, which provide lessons for future projects, always contingent on time, place, and specific circumstances. The United Nations Best Practices website describes a goal of building, a global network of capacity-building organisations dedicated to sharing and applying the lessons learned from innovative practices.10 Best Practices, then, is an evolving term. On the successes and failures of Anacostia development, future such initiatives will turn, developing ever better methods of making humans friendly cohabiters with the surrounding environment.


  2. See Release/www/releases/archives/facts_for_features/001574.html for more detailed information
    See Also
  3. Personal Interview, April 2004.
  5. Pinkney, AE; Harshbarger, JC; May, EB; Reichert, WL. Tumor Prevalence and Biomarkers of Exposure and Response in Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus) from the Anacostia River, Washington, DC and Tuckahoe River, Maryland, USA. Environmental Toxicology And Chemistry; VOL 23; Part 3; pp. 638-647; 2004
  6. Personal Interview, April 2004
  8. Personal Interview, Sally Gagne, President, Friends of Sligo Creek. November 2003.

Written by Ethan Goffman