“The Anacostia River had been ignored and forgotten for a long time, but it has gotten better in the past few years,” Jorge Bogantes Montero told us as we sunk shin-deep into chocolate mousse-colored muck along the river.
Sweat pooled in the bottom of our waders as we worked under a blistering sun and a heat index of 108 degrees F, thanks to the soggy humidity.
But it was good to be away from our computers on a Wednesday afternoon, as we took advantage of a benefit here at National Geographic that encourages us to volunteer in our communities by granting us a paid day out of the office.
My colleague Christine Dell’Amore had suggested we volunteer Wednesday in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday, a day that is annually marked by community service around the world.
So we had joined up with a team of bright-eyed summer interns from the Anacostia Watershed Society, a group based in Bladensburg, Maryland, that has been fighting to restore one of America’s most polluted waterways for the past 23 years.
We met the cheery crew at Bladensburg Waterfront Park and drove a short distance to the restoration site, which was behind the stately Fort Lincoln cemetery.
The Anacostia flows for 8.7 miles, from Prince George’s County, Maryland to Washington, D.C., where it joins with the Potomac at Buzzard Point. The water is fresh although it is tidal thanks to its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, explained Montero.
Historically, it was an important ecosystem that supported a rich array of plants and animals, and helped feed generations of Native Americans and newer arrivals.
John Smith explored the Anacostia and traded with the people who lived along it. Today, the University of Maryland crew trains there. But the water is still not safe for swimming or drinking, warned Montero.
The watershed is now home to more than a million people, with a lot of polluted runoff coming from pavement and off lawns. Sewage is still a problem, thanks to old fashioned treatment plants, although the situation improved in 1999 after a lawsuit by the Anacostia Watershed Society. PCBs and other pollutants also entered the river over a long period from the adjacent Washington Navy Yard.
Montero showed us how to plant native cattails, which his group had raised into seedlings at their local nursery. He explained that the cattails spread quickly and are good at making a stand against the dreaded phragmites, a tall invasive weed that has been choking the watershed.
Montero and his team have been hacking away bushels of phragmites, which grow taller than a person’s head and so thick it makes a cornfield look like a desert.
Montero told us phragmites is bad for biodiversity although it is ok for water quality.
We also planted arrow plants and swamp pickerel, taking care to set them carefully into the muck along the river’s edge. While we worked, Montero hacked at phragmites that had tried to creep back into the restoration area with a machete.
A green wire fence separated the plot from the main channel, in hopes of discouraging hungry Canada geese from eating the new plants before they have time to take hold.
As we worked, we saw plastic bottles, Doritos wrappers, and old tires emerging from the mud. We picked up what we could manage, although it was exhausting wading through the muck in that heat.
Montero didn’t seem as affected by the heat. No doubt he is more used to working outside than us office dwellers, being a conservation biologist. Montero also originally hails from balmy Costa Rica.
There’s a lot more work to do for the Anacostia. Restoring native plants will help bolster biodiversity. But toxin levels need to decrease further before the river meets the Clean Water Act goal of being swimmable.
Today, part of the river wends through leafy Maryland, but part of it also runs past some of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. It’s a river that connects much of the region, and it will take a broad coalition to clean it up.
Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.