What they found was the Anacostia River, one of America's "ten worst rivers," flowing through the heart of Washington's most troubled and neglected inner-city neighborhoods. Some call it Washington's "forgotten river," compared to Washington's "beloved river," the Potomac, which has benefitted from $5 billion worth of clean-up during the past four decades.
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"Few other cities in the nation have such a fantastic resource right in their own backyard," Nixon said. "But what has happened is that people have said, 'Well, it's in Southeast Washington -- people don't care about the environment over there.' I don't know if they have said that verbally, or just said that by their actions. But if you look at the two islands in the Anacostia -- Heritage and Kingman islands, where eagles once nested -- they were National Park lands until last year, and for years and years, the National Park Service and the D.C. Parks dumped leaves and tree stumps from parks in Northwest Washington on those islands. That's a civil rights issue, if I have ever heard one."
The Anacostia is a tidal estuary that was a sturgeon fishing ground when Indians lived near the river. Bald eagles nested on Heritage and Kingman islands until 1947, feeding on the sturgeon and large mouth bass. But by the 1950s, the river was dead. Oxygen levels had dropped so low there was no fish for eagles or humans to eat. The only life in the river was a species of worm.
Benny Jones (left) and Gerald "Tink" Huelett (far right) working on Beaverdam Creek clean-up. They are two of three founding members of ECC who have been killed in the past year (see next page).
The ECC's first project was Lower Beaverdam Creek, a highly visible eyesore that was dramatically improved when ECC members removed 4,300 tires and other assorted refuse during a three-month period. This four-mile creek originates just inside the Capital Beltway near Landover, and enters the Anacostia River south of New York Avenue.
In the past, Beaverdam Creek has been a spawning area for herring. But unlike 12 other significant Anacostia tributaries, much of the land it runs through is owned by industrial companies, including scrap-metal recyclers and junkyards.
"People said, 'That's not even a creek, that's a tire dump -- why are you fooling with it?'" Nixon recalls. "It was a creek just three miles from the White House that had been really abused. Today, it's really clean. Fish are coming back."
As the city grew around the Anacostia, the river suffered "a death of one-thousand cuts," Nixon said. Rainwater running off the surrounding lands, much of which have been paved during the past century, has been a major source of pollution. Preventing this kind of pollution is more difficult than isolating and fixing "point source" pollution that flows from industrial pipes along a river.
This river has really started to turn around in the last five to six years, due in large measure to the work of members of the community
Thunderstorms create a surge of runoff that can cause water levels in Beaverdam Creek to rise five feet. Raw sewage flows into the river when storm surges flood city sewers. Trash is swept into the river through storm drains.
Solving these problems requires basic infrastructure improvements, such as separating storm sewers from sanitary sewers and building catchment basins to slow run-off from parking lots. The entire community needs to be involved in preventing trash and other contaminants from being swept into the river. "There is a whole myriad of problems, but when they are fixed, and when this river is swimmable again, it is going to be the envy of the entire world," Nixon said.
"This river has really started to turn around in the last five to six years, due in large measure to the work of members of the community," Nixon added. "When we started, there was nobody out there. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency -- everyone else -- is getting on the bandwagon, which is great! We called the D.C. Government the other day, and they said they have a restoration plan! It was really astonishing that they now have a plan to restore these creeks."
ECC workers remove debris, place booms to trap spills, provide fish passage around small dams, raise and release bald eagles, plant trees and gardens, repair stream banks and fences, and build foot bridges. They are opening public access to the river for boating and fishing, and educating the community about the environment and their work
"These are the first steps in reclaiming these creeks," Nixon said. "I have seen an amazing change since we have been here -- both in attitudes -- in the attention of the whole community -- and in the presence of wildlife."
"There are a lot of people who really love to fish on the river -- they get a lot of protein out of it, but they are not really consulted (about plans for the river)," Nixon said. "They have not been about to fight for the it. But that is changing. We have a lot of groups that are stepping up now. People in the community are really pitching in to see how we can work better together."
"There is a tremendous connection to the river despite the obstacles put in the community's way. There was a public hearing one week ago to discuss a proposed theme park on the Anacostia River islands, and several score community members came down to the City Council chambers to testify. They waited until almost midnight, and made some of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard about the value of the environment to a community."
Nixon has even been swimming in the river. "The river has gotten a lot cleaner since I have been here," he said. "We are seeing the fish population return. There are sturgeon, striped bass, catfish, shad and blueback herring. We have 60 pairs of great blue herons nesting on the islands." Boaters and hikers along the river have spotted egrets, beavers, and snapping turtles.
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