For Dottie Yunger, the river's pollution is more than a shame. It's a sin.
"Sometimes I've seen flotillas of trash so big, so deep and so wide, you watch the great blue herons walks across," says Yunger. "It looks like they're walking on water, but they're actually walking on trash."
Yunger is the Anacostia Riverkeeper, part of an international network of advocates devoted to protecting the world's waterways. So keeping an eye on the Anacostia is her job. But she says it’s also her calling.
"Ministers are called to serve those in need. And traditionally we have defined those in need as people. As an environmentalist, I think of it bigger than that. I think of the Earth in need. I think of environments in need."
The Anacostia River used to be pristine, with large sturgeon, she says. But now, raw sewage flows into the river after heavy rains. Chemicals leach into the water. And fish carry toxins deep in their tissues.
"As Reverend Riverkeeper, I don’t just want to see this river as fishable and swimmable. I want to see it fishable, swimmable and baptizeable."
For the past six years, Yunger has been studying to become a Methodist minister. Now she wants her bishop to recognize the river, its organisms, and the communities that surround it as her parish.
"That includes going to houses of worship and preaching the word," Yunger says. "Creating Bible studies for folks in their houses of worship that connect them to the scripture and to current environmental issues. But that’s also things like working with the church like I am on Capitol Hill to put in a 600 gallon rain barrel to catch runoff from their property."
She says caring for creation – and specifically respecting water – has deep roots in religion.
"Jesus Christ is described as the living water for Christianity. In Judaism, it’s the living water in which people ritually bathe and cleanse themselves through the Mikvah."
But Yunger says scripture has also been used as an excuse to take advantage of the Earth's resources. "For example, this being created in the image of God. I think folks have taken that to mean that humans are God-like. We can play God here on Earth and the consequences be damned."
But so far, Yunger's efforts to become the Reverend Riverkeeper have fallen short. She was asked to take on another assignment – at a traditional church, with four walls, a pulpit and pews. Yunger declined.
"The Anacostia River needs a voice. And the communities that work and live and play along the Anacostia River need a voice. There is deeper healing that would come for them if the voice was not just an environmentalist, but a minister."
Still, Yunger says even she gets discouraged sometimes.
"It's disheartening to go out on the river after a really large rain storm and see all the trash on the river. And it makes you want to throw up your hands and go home and think how can one person possibly make a difference."
But then she says she thinks about her flock – of herons, ospreys and eagles. And for their sake – as well as her own – she has to have... faith.