Riding Washington D.C.’s “Forgotten River”

By Emily Wathen

It was one of the hottest July mornings on record in the D.C. Metro area when EarthShare national staff, thoroughly sunscreened and hydrated, climbed aboard with one of our newest member charities for a trip down the historic but often forgotten Anacostia River.

Anacostia RiverThe Anacostia flows from Prince George's County in Maryland into our nation’s capital, where it eventually empties into the Potomac River. Most D.C. area residents only get a glimpse of the Anacostia from the window of their car as they hustle from the busy neighborhoods of Southeast to Northwest D.C. and back.

Our excellent guides from EarthShare Mid-Atlantic member charity Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), including James Foster, President of AWS, pointed to our surroundings to remind us, “Folks, we’re in D.C. right now.”

As we glided along in the pontoon boat, it was often hard to believe it. Blue herons, egrets and stunning kingfishers abounded on the river’s edge, and the shores were teeming with lush plant life. My coworkers and I were thrilled to be taking in the sights and sounds of the river and learning the history and progress of protecting its waters. The smiles on the faces of my overheated colleagues attested to the serene and simple beauty of this 8-mile urban river.

But despite the natural beauty surrounding us, our guides warned us pretty quickly that jumping in for a refreshing dip in the Anacostia wasn't a good idea. They also didn't recommend we go fishing for lunch.

Anacostia River Tour It’s the goal of AWS to make these things possible again one day.

Thanks to increased awareness and action in recent years, the river is beginning to rebound. AWS has helped to restore hundreds of acres of wetlands, add forested buffers, and create a healthier habitat for aquatic grasses, mussels and clams, all of which are beginning to re-emerge. But cleanup challenges on the Anacostia remain daunting after centuries of pollution from industrial, residential and agricultural sources. EarthShare’s CEO Kal Stein recalled, “It was amazing to see how beautiful the river can be despite everything it has endured, and what a treasure it could be if it was cleaned up and made more accessible.”

At the end of our pontoon ride, Erin Castelli of AWS handed me a copy of the State of the Anacostia River Report Card. The very first page has the word FAIL written three times in bold red letters. It was a sobering reminder of just how much work lies ahead.

The good news is that you can help!

  • Employees in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Delaware and Virginia can give to local groups like AWS through EarthShare Mid-Atlantic in the Combined Federal Campaign and private and public sector workplace giving campaigns in the Mid-Atlantic region.

  • Experience the Anacostia for yourself - join EarthShare at the annual Anacostia Cleanup in April! Check back in the spring for details.


Our thanks to AWS for inviting EarthShare staff to see how one of our member charities is achieving such tangible results in our local environment. Visit AWS online at www.anacostiaws.org.


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Thanks so much for this great feedback and for sharing your own story, Cindy! Living Classrooms is one of our favorite organizations. It's so critical that kids form that connection with the great outdoors early on -- they're our future conservationists. Hats off to you and Jeanette Stewart at Lands and Water!

Cindy Wackerbarth

Good to know that many are working to clean up the Anacostia! It was a pleasure to take Tyler El. 5th graders to Kingman Island in May 2010 with Jeanette Stewart of non- profit, Lands and Waters, in conjunction with Living Classrooms. Some of the students had never been in the woods and were frightened to be there, frightened to cross a bridge, but were delighted when they saw the beauty, learned about the river, the island, and encountered the nature that was there. The 5th graders worked on making eco-art masterpieces collaboratively and then writing about the experience and the art, a program of yet another non profit, Monarch Teacher Network, Voices from the Land. It takes a village!


Was part of a question on W. W. 2B a Millionaire. The contestant was unable to correctly identify (from a list of four) which city it was in - even though it was a video question from an actor who (though in pre-PC days would be called an actress) implied her character can overlook the river (even though it can't be filmed in the real federal building).

John Weber

Great article. Please don't forget that proud EarthShare member the Surfrider Foundation was instrumental in passing a law to put a fee on single use plastic (and paper) bags in DC. The funds raised will help clean the Anacostia, but more importantly, the 75% reduction in bag use will reduce litter and also clean the Anacostia.

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