Can Washingtonians Reconnect With The Anacostia River? (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Can Washingtonians Reconnect With The Anacostia River?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Our theme today is Connections. Our next story is about people working to reconnect local residents with a resource they've long been told to avoid, the Anacostia River. Jim Foster is the executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. Our environment reporter, Jonathan Wilson joined him on the water early one morning to look at how far the river has come.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:34
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 we're 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. And 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.

MR. JIM FOSTER

00:01:10
This is, you know, not what I think a lot of people think when they hear the Anacostia. They think, you know, don't go there, that river's dirty. It's just a very negative frame of reference about the river. And somewhat rightfully so. You know for two generations we've told people don't go there, that river's dirty.

WILSON

00:01:31
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.

FOSTER

00:01:53
Anacostia Watershed Society has been working out here for coming up on 25 years, and the original stuff was refrigerators and tires.

WILSON

00:02:02
Foster says it's a good sign that large items like those are becoming more rare. It means the actual dumping of trash into the river is mostly a thing of the past.

FOSTER

00:02:12
Today what you're seeing are water bottles and soda bottles, and Styrofoam. It's the detritus of convenient life. This is stuff that is completely manageable at the source. And so you're seeing -- and the mayor just came out with this sustainability plan. And part of it is he wants to do a ban on Styrofoam. Well, it's the result of seeing stuff like this, the Styrofoam floating around in here from people going out to a restaurant, you know, getting take-out, and eating it and the package getting away from them.

WILSON

00:02:42
He argues that bottle deposit laws would be another big step in the right direction. They put a value on bottle plastic, forcing manufacturers to pay back people who recycle the bottles, thereby incentivizing bottle collection. Beverage companies bristle at the prospect.

FOSTER

00:02:58
In other states that have bottle deposit legislation, they're collecting about 90 percent of that waste stream. In Maryland here, with recycling, we're only collecting about 20 to 22 percent of the waste stream. It's a huge difference.

WILSON

00:03:14
About a mile south of the Maryland/D.C. line Foster swings his pontoon boat into a narrow channel on the eastern side of the river. And suddenly the waterway opens up into the small lake that is Kenilworth Marsh. The marsh is comprised of 30 acres of wetland, restored to relative health in the early 1990s by the Army Corp of Engineers and the National Park Service. The fog is still with us, but even without it, it would be nearly impossible to tell we're in the middle of an urban capital.

FOSTER

00:03:41
The one thing I want to impress upon you is you're in the heart of Washington, D.C. Is this unbelievable?

WILSON

00:03:48
Foster motors the boat back onto the main river, and four Canada Geese paddle out of the way before taking wing. He says over-population of geese has become a real problem on the Anacostia, since the geese feed on young wetland plants, hampering restoration efforts. Foster points at two isolated circles of vegetation near the banks. They're surrounded by mesh fencing that rises about a foot out of the water. Foster says it's a technique that his organization is using with the help of local high school volunteers.

FOSTER

00:04:17
Look how lush the growth is inside the fencing. And it's about six inches deep outside there, right there. And it's just bare mud flat. And if you needed any more proof about how the geese are tearing up the emerging wetland plants, you don't need to look any further than those two circles right there.

WILSON

00:04:36
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.

FOSTER

00:04:51
Once the District finishes the Anacostia Tunnel, 13 miles long, 100 feet deep, 28 feet in diameter, it's going to store all the overflow from the combined sewers. We're going to see an incredible reduction in sewage to the river.

WILSON

00:05:06
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.

FOSTER

00:05:17
What we've done is we've completely disconnected people from this river, and they don't come here. There's five and a half million people that live within 30-some miles of here or whatever. This place should be crazy.

WILSON

00:05:28
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. I'm Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

00:05:42
You can see photos of Jonathan's boat ride on the Anacostia on our website, metroconnection.org.
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