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Can Washingtonians Reconnect With The Anacostia River?

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Jim Foster of the Anacostia Watershed Society steering on the river.
Jonathan Wilson
Jim Foster of the Anacostia Watershed Society steering on the river.

Jim Foster steps onto his pontoon boat at Bladensburg Waterfront Park and eases into the middle of the river. It's chilly, and it'll be at least another hour before the morning fog burns away, but he's not the only ones on the water.

One high-school rowing team glides by, and another is about to leave the dock. A man in a blue parka waves to Foster from some trees on the bank: he's getting ready to do some fishing. A few egrets and a heron not far downstream have already been hunting the shallows for hours.

It isn't exactly bustling, but the truth is, at daybreak, the Anacostia is busier than you might expect.

"This is not what I think a lot of people think when they hear the Anacostia," he says. "They think, 'don't go there, that river's dirty,'" Foster says. "It's just a very negative frame of reference about the river. And somewhat rightfully so — for two generations we've told people 'don't go there, that river's dirty.'"

And there is trash here.

Foster apologizes four or five times over the course of the morning, almost as if he sees the Anacostia as his living room, strewn with clutter as guests arrive. Recent rains have made things worse, washing more litter downstream. But the mess is mostly made up of small items, and Foster says that's different than it was in the not so distant past.

"Anacostia Watershed Society has been working out here for coming up on 25 years, and the original stuff was refrigerators and tires," he says.

Foster says it's a good sign that large items like those are becoming rarer — it means the actual dumping of trash into the river is mostly a thing of the past.

"Today what you're seeing is soda bottles, water bottles, and Styrofoam — it's the detritus of convenient life... This is stuff that is completely manageable at the source," he says.

A bigger problem is the fact that raw sewage still flows into the Anacostia whenever heavy rains overtax the local pipe system. It's an issue that Foster hopes will be largely remedied by the Anacostia Water Tunnel — a massive project that broke ground in the spring.

Cleaner water and lush wetlands aren't all that Foster is after. He says a thriving Anacostia river could very well become the Central Park of the nation's capital.

"What we've done is we've completely disconnected people from this river, and they don't come here. There are 5.5 million people that live within 30-something miles of here or whatever. This place should be crazy," Foster says.

For now, at least, the craziest thing about the Anacostia might be how its beauty, however diminished after years of mistreatment, can still shine through the fog.

[Music: ""Okkervil River Song" by Okkervil River from Don't Fall in Live With Everyone You See / "Promises Promises" by The Karaoke Channel from In The Style of Naked Eyes]

Photos: Reconnecting with the Anacostia River

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