Banned for 50 years, swimming is now (occasionally) possible in Washington, DC’s formerly filthy, neglected Anacostia River

On July 8, 2023, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), and partners from the Anacostia Riverkeeper planned to join District residents at a swimming event designed to celebrate restorative progress toward a swimmable Anacostia River.

Unlike the far-more-famous Potomac River—which is considered the cleanest and wildest urban river in the United States—the Anacostia River (which runs through primarily Black neighborhoods on the east side of the city) has long been little more than a place to dump waste.

So, it’s fitting that its cleanup was started in 1984 by a now-91-year-old Black man: Howard Gasaway, Sr, with support from the District’s second Black mayor, Marion Barry. (read that inspiring story in the Washington Post).

It wasn’t long ago that most striped bass fish caught in the Anacostia had cancerous tumors.

Now, in a great example of the global river restoration trend originally documented in the groundbreaking 2002 book, The Restoration Economy, the Anacostia is not just fishable…it’s even swimmable…occasionally.

We said “planned to” above, because—at the last minute—the swimming event was postponed until September. This was because the District’s antique combined sewage and stormwater system dumped raw sewage into the river the day before the planned event. Like 771 other cities in the U.S., DC runs stormwater through the same pies as raw sewage, which means heavy rainfall overwhelms the sewage treatment plant.

This dumb designed worked fine 200 years ago, when cities were small. But civil engineering firms kept building them for decades after the problem was known: a massive and tragic abdication of leadership by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Many of those same engineering firms are now being paid billions to undo those unnecessary mistakes.

Now, cities all across the country are spending additional billions redesigning and rebuilding relatively-recent systems that never should have been built in the first place, with the goal of restoring rivers and estuaries (not to mention public health).

The Anacostia’s impressive restoration (despite the obsolete sewage system) is thanks to the work of many government agencies, as well as non-profit groups such as the Anacostia Watershed Society and Anacostia Waterkeeper.

The event—when it eventually happend—will give residents a rare chance to swim in, and reconnect with, their Anacostia River…while making history at the first permitted swim event in the Anacostia River in more than 50 years.

The free community event, Splash, will be open to all individuals aged 18 and older who know how to swim.

This event is a celebration of all the organizations and people who have been working for years, and continue to work every day, so that we can have a swimmable, fishable Anacostia River,” said Mayor Bowser.

And while this is the first permitted swimming event in 50 years, we also know there will be many more as we continue our transformation of the Anacostia River,” she added.

The event will be held at the Kingman Island dock next to the Benning Road Bridge, and residents will be able to swim in the river during a designated 20-minute time slot.

DOEE is proud to support our grantees’ work in improving the water quality of the District to ensure we reach Mayor Bowser’s goal of the District’s rivers becoming swimmable and fishable,” said DOEE Acting Director Richard Jackson. “Our natural resources are necessary for the overall health and success of our residents and we appreciate the hard work that’s being done.”

The Splash event is hosted by the Anacostia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization that—since 2008—has been dedicated to restoring the Anacostia River for all who live, work, and play in the watershed.

Despite the environmental issues still facing the Anacostia River, water quality has significantly improved over the past few decades. We are as close as we have ever been to the possibility of bringing back a swimmable Anacostia,” said Riverkeeper President and Founding Board Member Suzy Kelly.

The DC Citizen Science Water Quality Monitoring Program has tracked the river’s environmental progress for five years and has found low bacteria levels at key recreational sites along the Anacostia.

The Anacostia Riverkeeper reports that “in 2022, monitoring sites at Kingman Island, Buzzards Point, and Washington Channel passed recreational water quality standards over 90% of the time. These trends have continued for the 2023 monitoring season so far.”

We are thrilled to be able to mark this milestone towards a swimmable Anacostia River with Splash,” says Riverkeeper Trey Sherard. “It’s really a testament to the impactful work that has been done in the watershed.

In 2016, Mayor Bowser joined the Montgomery County Executive and Prince George’s County Executive in signing the Anacostia River Accord, signifying a renewed commitment on the part of the three jurisdictions to work collaboratively toward removing trash from the Anacostia River, its tributaries, and watershed.

That same year, the Mayor signed a 2016 law that designated DC’s official state fish and established new pathways for protecting native wildlife, critical habitats, and shorelines.

In 2018, which the District celebrated as the Year of the Anacostia, the Mayor announced a landmark $4.7 million investment for educational and recreational improvements on Kingman Island and Heritage Islands.

Since taking office, the Bowser Administration has taken a multi-tiered approach to cleaning up the District’s waterways, protecting native wildlife, and preserving important habitats, including:

  • Continued support of the ongoing $45 million Anacostia River Sediment Project to reverse the history of industrial pollution in the river;
  • Spending approximately $25 million annually on programs and projects to protect and restore District waters using green infrastructure, tree plantings, stream and wetland restoration, and numerous other activities;
  • Using approximately $15 million in federal grants to support restoration activities; and
  • Launching the Anacostia Green Boats program in 2021, which allows participants to get meaningful hands-on boating experience while also collecting marine debris from the Anacostia River.

As a reminder, currently, residents are only allowed to swim in the Anacostia River during special events permitted by DOEE. In 2018, DOEE issued an amendment to the 1971 swimming ban to allow for permitted swim events in District waters, such as the Splash event.

Featured photo (by Storm Cunningham) shows Anacostia Watershed Society Executive Director Jim Foster chatting with Dr. Maria MacKnight (wife of REVITALIZATION Editor Storm Cunningham) during a private tour of the Society’s Anacostia River restoration progress.

Learn more about the water quality monitoring program (PDF).

See the Anacostia Riverkeeper website.

See the Anacostia Watershed Society website.

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