Cleanup efforts turn to the Chesapeake's urban kin

November 07, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Government officials signed a pact to clean up the Anacostia River yesterday, tackling an urban river so filthy that even the hearty blue crab can't live there and so devoid of trees that its water reaches a stifling 95 degrees in places.

Flowing through Prince George's and Montgomery counties and into the heart of the District of Columbia, the Anacostia has been branded the "forgotten river."

When the federal government vowed 30 years ago to clean up the Potomac and seven years ago to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, it ignored their tributary, the Anacostia, which is now so polluted that it will take a major local, state and federal effort to clean it up.

"The water quality in the tidal estuary ranks as some of the worst in the Chesapeake Bay system," said Tom Schueler, chief of the Anacostia Restoration Team.

The restoration agreement, signed yesterday by the District of Columbia, Prince George's County, Montgomery County and Maryland officials, commits the governments to a six-point plan that includes making the river habitable for fish, wildlife and marshes. Officials also promised to "dramatically reduce" the pollution now entering the river.

In addition, the signers agreed to help pay for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study to look at the best and most cost effective methods of restoring the river. The effort is expected to cost at least $40 million, according to Mr. Schueler at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which is coordinating the project.

Efforts to help the Chesapeake Bay have often focused on preserving a viable natural system. But in the Anacostia's urban watershed, Mr. Schueler said, the challenge is to re-create the ecology.

Twenty percent of the 170-square-mile watershed is paved over. It has lost 90 percent of its tidal wetlands, 75 percent of its freshwater wetlands and 50 percent of its forests.

In past years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers paved the channel of some tributaries to the Anacostia. And the District of Columbia still dumps untreated sewage into its waters about 40 or 50 times a year during heavy rainstorms.

Another major source of pollution is runoff from city streets, which brings a host of grime, oil and toxic chemicals.

As a result, the river is nearly devoid of oxygen in the tidal basin from April until November, so few creatures but carp and catfish survive there. In their flesh is found unsafe levels of toxic chemicals, such as the anti-termite pesticide chlordane and PCBs, most commonly used in transformers.

Even before yesterday's ceremonies, volunteers and government officials had begun working on the Anacostia. Volunteers have pulled 5 tons of trash from the Briar Ditch, a stream feeding into the Northeast Branch in Prince George's County, said Judy Gaes, who heads restoration work in that area. They tied rope to an old couch and dragged it 20 yards down the stream and 12 feet up embankments. With no road near this stream to bring equipment, they took out dishwashers, tires and trash in wheelbarrows.

This spring, a consulting firm called Biohabitats reconstructed a tiny marsh on mud flats near Kenilworth Gardens as an experiment to see how to restore wetlands along a river where there were once 1,000 acres and now barely any. If all goes well, about 20 acres of marsh will be planted there, said Reed Huppman, an environmental scientist with Biohabitats. The marsh should provide a nursery ground for wildlife and fish and restore the balance of the area.

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