Across the Wards | A D.C. nonprofit’s efforts to reshape a community’s view of the Anacostia River
For numerous residents of neighborhoods surrounding the Anacostia River in Washington D.C.’s Ward 7, the waterway is a symbol of fear and distrust. Many grew up with stories of its pollution and danger, and some continue to avoid the river today. Anacostia Riverkeeper, a local nonprofit organization, is dedicating their efforts to making the river cleaner and more accessible, and reframing the community’s perception of it.
Anacostia Riverkeeper is a 501-C-3 nonprofit that was founded in 2008 with the mission to restore and protect the Anacostia River for all who live, work, and play in the watershed.
Quinn Molner, Director of Operations at Anacostia Riverkeeper, said they accomplish their goals through community outreach programs, such as free boat tours along the river, fishing excursions, trash clean ups, and citizen science monitoring.
Molner said the organization takes data from the trash clean ups and uses it to write and advocate for legislation to help reduce trash in the watershed.
“We have over two miles of uninterrupted riverbank on both sides of the Anacostia and that’s, frankly, something you’re not going to find in any other major city in the world,” Molner said.
Brenda Richardson, coordinator for the Anacostia Parks and Community Collaborative, has lived within distance from the riverbank for over 25 years.
Richardson got started in the environmental justice movement when a friend of hers invited her to an environmental meeting at a D.C. Federal College, where, according to Richardson, the room was made up of 100 people, entirely men. Richardson said she left the meeting confused by the amount of environmental jargon used during the meeting, but that she kept going back until she eventually understood.
“It was at that time that [Richardson’s friend] crowned [her] an ‘eco-feminist’, meaning you not only nurture the community but you nurture mother earth,” Richardson said.
Richardson said it was at that point she decided she would become the champion for environmental justice issues for her community. Since then, she has spent her time focusing on educating people about environmental issues, specializing in embracing nature as a source of connection and healing.
According to Richardson, there is a significant connection between water quality and mental health. She said that many African Americans are not able to connect with the water because they don’t grow up learning to swim.
This past summer, Anacostia Riverkeeper, provided members of the community with a chance to swim in the river with their “Anacostia River Splash” event. Richardson said due to the murkiness of the water, she still did not want to touch it, let alone jump in.
“We are exposed to so much fear,” Richardson said when speaking about members of her community, “We just live with so much fear that the thought of getting close to the river and not being able to swim is terrifying.”
Molner said some residents had a “healthy hesitancy” about the swim event.
“We’ve been here for a relatively short time compared to folks who have lived here their entire lives,” Molner said, “But we’re turning around 50 years of discourse about [the Anacostia river]. And that’s a big thing to do.”
Despite the fear felt throughout the community, Richardson said she recognizes that going on Anacostia Riverkeeper’s boat trips along the river “soothes [their] spirits,” and is a healthy thing.
“There are direct links to mental health and outdoor access, and I’d like to think that we can provide a bit of escapism for people when they do get to kind of experience that with us,” Molner said.
According to Richardson, African American members of the community that do connect with the water do so by subsistence fishing. She said she remembers years ago looking at the fish that were being caught out of curiosity of their appearance, and seeing them covered in boils.
“We asked several of [the subsistence fishermen] ‘are you going to eat that?’ and they said, ‘of course,’” Richardson said.
Many of the fishermen told Richardson that they planned on either cutting out the boils or simply frying them off before eating the fish.
The National Park Service released an official advisory on consumption of fish from the Anacostia River, complete with a list of the exact amounts of each type of fish that could be consumed. Richardson expressed concern for the amount of fish the subsistence fishermen were eating and in turn exposing their families to.
“If that’s what they have to do to put food on their table, I don’t know that I could be the judge of that,” Richardson said.
Molner said that during the Anacostia Riverkeeper fishing events, staff members would often approach and converse with subsistence fishermen on the dock. She said that they often start the conversation by asking what the fishermen are doing and if they plan on keeping the fish, before beginning to educate them about the risks.
“We talk a lot about it and it’s a really great moment to educate folks and, also, correct some thoughts that they might have that are either outdated or just not true,” Molner said.
Although consuming fish from the river is still considered dangerous, Richardson said that she has watched the state of the river improve over time. One indication that the fish are becoming more safe to eat is that eagles are now catching fish from the Anacostia to feed to their young. That does not necessarily mean they’re safe for humans, but Richardson described it as a “good sign.”
Along with the subsistence fishermen, there are also residents who enjoy catch and release fishing on the river.
Jerome Smith and his wife have been fishing in D.C. their entire lives, and never miss an opportunity to set up their folding chairs and tackle box right on the seawall at Anacostia Park.
“I’ve been fishing on the Anacostia River forever,” Smith said, “But I always throw them back.”
Molner said that the Anacostia River has a long history of neglect and misuse, from the time of colonization. The late 1800s is when she said the “true toxins came in,” due to the dumping of refrigerator coolants and coal ash into the river, along with bomb testing in the river outside of Navy Yard.
Despite the damaging past that the river has endured, Richardson said that the overall quality of the Anacostia seems to be getting better over the years, pointing primarily to DC Water’s new tunnel system that has reduced sewer overflows to the Anacostia by 90 percent.
“That’s the best thing that has happened,” Richardson said, “I think that’s going to yield some really positive outcomes for the river being cleaner.”
A cleaner Anacostia could mean a lot of positive benefits for residents of lower income communities. Richardson said it could lead to more people learning to swim, and having better mental health. She said she longs for the day when people living in underprivileged communities learn how to swim, because it’s free.
“You don’t have to pay to swim in a river that belongs to your city and your community,” Richardson said.
But unfortunately, according to Richardson, it is just not realistic right now.
“Many of us can’t afford to do it,” Richardson said, “Not because it’s not free, but because we don’t know how to swim.”
There is still a long way to go to heal the generations-old wounds burdening the Anacostia. .
Richardson said that there has been a lot of water quality monitoring and politicking needed to get the river into better shape, but teaching residents about sustainability is most important.
“Mother Earth takes really good care of us,” Richardson said. “So it is our responsibility to take better care of her.”