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For decades, the Washington region’s rivers have been notorious for their pollution and contamination. It’s illegal to swim in all D.C. waterways, and has been since the early seventies, because of those concerns.
But many who work closely with the Anacostia and Potomac waterways say the day is coming where they’ll be safe to swim in. The amount of sewage in the Anacostia has been reduced dramatically over the past year, and so long as it’s not rained recently there are days when both rivers are technically safe and permitted swim events can take place.
Keeping the rivers clean is as much an infrastructure problem as it is an environmental one. We’ll hear from WAMU’s environmental reporter Jacob Fenston, as well as two local riverkeepers, on the state of the district’s waterways – what’s in them, what’s not, and when you might be able to hop in.
Produced by Maura Currie
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For decades, officials have warned people to stay out of our local rivers. If you've been here for any amount of time, you've probably heard that they're dirty, full of sewage and pollution. You might also know that it is actually illegal to swim in any of the District's waterways without a permit. And, even so, the risk of encountering nasty bacteria is never zero. But new data and initiatives suggest that the day the Anacostia is safe to swim in might be coming sooner than we think. And the Potomac isn't far behind.
KOJO NNAMDIHere to tell us where and when it might be safe to swim someday is Robbie O'Donnell. He's the project coordinator at Anacostia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring the Anacostia River. Robbie O'Donnell, thank you for joining us.
ROBBIE O'DONNELLThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Phillip Musegaas. He is vice president of Programs and Litigation at Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the equivalent organization for the Potomac River. Phillip, thank you for joining us.
PHILLIP MUSEGAASThank you.
NNAMDIUp first is Jacob Fenston. He is WAMU's environment reporter. Jacob, thank you for joining us.
JACOB FENSTONThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIBefore we get into the rivers, you just came back from a press conference having to do with the amount of ivory being essentially smuggled into this region?
FENSTONYeah, so it was the United States Humane Society, did an undercover investigation. They went to antique stores and the Georgetown Flea Market, looking for ivory that's for sale. And sort of the most stunning picture they had was of this -- it's basically an entire tusk that was for sale in an antique store in D.C. for $600,000. They want to pass local legislation to crack down on these sales.
NNAMDINo doubt, we'll find out when you file your story about why D.C. seems to be so central to ivory coming into this country. But tell us about your reporting on the Anacostia. Is the water safe?
FENSTONThe short answer, I guess, would be no, unfortunately, especially with all the rain that we've had recently. But it has been getting a lot better, and I think Robbie could speak more to this. But there's been a recent initiative to test the water every week. And it's shown that some places on some weeks are actually meeting sort of EPA and District standards for what would be considered safe swimming in terms of bacterial levels. So, no, but it's getting closer.
NNAMDIJacob, even in spite of the swim ban, you've spoken to lots of people who are getting into the water, anyway. Tell us about that.
FENSTONRight. Not Anacostia, just yet. I haven't encountered someone swimming in the Anacostia, but in the Potomac, there are a lot of people swimming. So, just outside of the District border is where this swim ban is not in effect. There is a group that's been swimming every week, open-water swimmers and triathletes who are swimming at National Harbor, which actually has good water quality, according to this testing project that I mentioned.
FENSTONBut, yeah, they've been doing this every week for a decade. According to people I talked to, you know, they basically almost never cancel because of water quality. They’ve never had an incident where someone says they got sick because of swimming there. So, they were really sort of gung-ho about the swimming in the Potomac and wanted to see, you know, opportunities to swim closer to home. Most of the people I talked to there, you know, drove down from Maryland or from D.C., and would love to be able to swim in the river within the District.
NNAMDIAnd in your piece, Dennis Chestnut, who's been a guest on this show, says when he was a kid, he did swim in the Anacostia River. And he looks forward to being able to do that again someday.
NNAMDIIn your feature this morning, you talked about the history, here, Jacob. Officials have been promising to make the Anacostia swimmable for decades. So, just how long has it been polluted? What's the backstory?
FENSTONWell, both rivers have been polluted as long as, you know, Europeans have colonized this part of the country. And, you know, in terms of swimming, it really goes back to, you know, modern sewage. When the first sewer systems were put in place in the 1800s, you know, they basically just channeled sewage directly into the rivers. In 1938, the first sewage treatment plant was put in, and that helped a little bit. But there were still daily overflows of sewage into the rivers, you know, well into the 1960s.
FENSTONSince then, there have been improvements, but basically, we have a really old sewer system, and it overflows into the rivers, you know, most of the time when it rains. So, it's a problem that, you know, goes back decades, and we're still trying to sort of fix the errors that we, you know...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, the Anacostia is actually cleaner than it was a few decades ago. So, what's been the trajectory, and when was the low point of the river?
FENSTONYeah, I mean, I think the '70s were pretty bad. The early '70s were a pretty bad time for both rivers. You know, the Anacostia, you know, has been known for being filled with trash. It's gotten the majority of sewer overflows, and it doesn't have the same flow that the Potomac has to clean out that sewage. So, it just kind of sloshes around in the river for a longer amount of time. And, yeah, I mean, the Potomac used to be clogged every summer with algae, really bright, disgusting (laugh) algae. That's not a problem anymore, now.
NNAMDISo the Anacostia's cleaner, but is it clean enough to swim, yet? Can Dennis dive in yet?
FENSTONDon't put on your swimming trunks just yet.
NNAMDISo, the ban is still in place. We're seeing a lot of heavy rains these days, and more flooding. What does that mean for the waterway?
FENSTONIt's not good. So, I'll give you an example. July 8th, which was the Monday when it rained a lot, a couple weeks ago, we got, you know, a month's worth of rain in an hour. So, that day, the -- there's this new sewage tunnel that D.C. Water has put in to capture the sewage, so it doesn't overflow into the rivers, but it was overwhelmed by all that rain. The tunnel kept 170 million gallons of sewage out of the river, but 50 million gallons of it still went into the water. So, you know, when we get these huge rain events, it just overwhelms these new sewer tunnels. And if climate change does what experts say it's going to do -- you know, more of these big storm events -- then it's going to make it more of a challenge to get swimmable.
NNAMDITopher writes on Twitter: yes, I swim there, because I do it when it hasn't rained much, and I keep my mouth shut. A quick shower afterwards, and I'm good. I've changed enough diapers in my life to not get too skeezed-out by incidence of poop content. (laugh) Robbie O'Donnell, so what exactly is in the Anacostia, and why is the official guidance not to swim in it?
O'DONNELLIt's a mixture of stuff. Like Jacob said, you've got trash. There's also some legacy toxins in there, PCB, stuff from old industries, essentially. But, also, like Jacob said, there is bacteria in there, coming in from the ECSOs, or combined sewage overflow points. And that's really the thing that's affecting the swimming, is these toxins humans aren't really coming in contact with, because they're mostly in the soil. Trash, you can see, but in the lower part of the Anacostia, the D.C. Water does a pretty good job of actually cleaning it up. We do a lot of cleanups on the lower part of the Anacostia, as well in the upper watershed. So, that's starting to get a handle on.
O'DONNELLBut with the bacteria, you can't really see it, obviously. So, that's kind of the one thing that's affecting human health, is because if there are large amounts of bacteria -- according to our studies and according to EPA values for recreational standards and everything like that -- people do have the potential of getting sick, whether they open their mouth or not, like the person on Twitter said. You can get bacteria in through a cut, if you have a compromised immune system or anything like that. That's really the thing that's driving these swim warnings or swim bans, like in D.C.
NNAMDIPhillip Musegaas, your focus is the Potomac. What are some of the differences with the Potomac, and what are the issues you see there?
MUSEGAASWell, the difference is -- the main difference in terms of sewage pollution and being able to swim in the river really has to do with the timing of what D.C. is doing in terms of building these big tunnels to capture all this polluted storm water. And so we -- as you mentioned earlier, and we had great development over the past year that D.C. Water brought their big tunnel online for the Anacostia River. I think that's supposed to capture 80 percent of the sewage overflows in the Anacostia.
MUSEGAASWe have a very large tunnel planned by D.C. Water for the Potomac, but that's not going to be online until 2030. So, we are looking at about another 10 to 12 years of sewage overflows every time it rains. You know, the same kind of things we've been suffering throughout the region for decades.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here is Ken, in Alexandria. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENOh, thanks for taking my call. So, about a month ago, I was taking sailing lessons, and unfortunately, my first step onto the sailboat landed me into the Potomac River. (laugh) Before I got into the river, though, I sliced up my hand really badly on one of the wires on the boat. And the good people at the Haven were kind enough to get me some medical attention pretty quickly. They poured hydrogen peroxide on my cut, but I also got a big gulp of Potomac water. And I'm fine. I mean, a month later, my hand healed up really nicely, and, you know, I haven't had any symptoms of bacterial infection.
NNAMDI(overlapping) But can you now sail? This was a sailing class, (laugh) wasn't it?
KEN(laugh) Yes. Yes, I can. I want to take some more classes, but, yeah, that didn't stop me from wanting to get back on the boat.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ken. Let's talk with Patrick, in West Virginia. Patrick, your turn.
PATRICKMy question was about -- and I live in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and I was wondering about water quality farther west on the Potomac. Actually, me and my (word?) were swimming in the Potomac after some rains. Not this past weekend, but the weekend before, and we had came up with, like, an upper-respiratory kind of infection. I mean, it could've come from anywhere, but I was just curious about the Potomac further west.
MUSEGAASSure. So, you know, there are sewage pollution problems on the upper Potomac, or what we -- above Harpers Ferry is what, at Potomac Riverkeeper, we refer to as the upper river. You don't have the combined sewer problems that the large cities like D.C. and Philadelphia and other cities have. But the challenge up there is very old infrastructure -- so very small or very outdated sewage treatment plants that don't operate properly, or old sewer lines that have leaks and cracks in them. And so whether it's heavy rain or the plant's not operating properly, you can get bacterial pollution up in that area.
NNAMDIAnd part of our long-term plan in the Potomac, you know, we launched a swimmable Potomac campaign this year. We're starting our focus in the D.C. area and the urban areas. But our goal is to expand our water quality, monitoring and testing for bacteria both up and down river over the next 10 to 15 years, and start to really figure out what the water quality is like up there. Because it's a beautiful river on the upper Potomac, and it's a beautiful place to recreate, and we want to make sure it's safe.
NNAMDIWill wrote us in an email: when I lived in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, I could subscribe to email updates that told me about water quality alerts. Swimming aside, people kayak, paddle board and fish regularly with little understanding of the risk on any given day. How can the public understand the risk to their health on the actual day they plan to enjoy the Potomac and its tributaries?
MUSEGAASSure, that's a great question. And, you know, there are a couple things to keep in mind when you're thinking about whether to go out. The data that we started collecting this summer and that Anacostia Riverkeeper's collecting is a good way to look at the overall trends. You know, we take samples every Wednesday. We analyze them on Thursday, and then we post the data publically on Fridays -- or, I'm sorry, on Thursdays, before the weekend. That's great for looking kind of over the summer at water quality. It doesn't tell you on the day you're going out.
MUSEGAASSo, really, a couple things to keep in mind, if it's rained one to three days before you're planning to go out on the river, you should really think about whether it's worth going out. You know, that heavy rainfall, especially in the urban areas, means that you're going to have untreated sewage going into the river.
MUSEGAASYou know, this also points out the need for D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia to do a lot more in terms of notifying the public when they think these combined sewer systems are actually discharging raw sewage. And, in D.C., they don't do a good job of that. They have some very crude warning light systems that I think the public is not very aware of. And, you know, we could do a lot more.
MUSEGAASIf you look at other cities, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York City, they all have adopted and use technology to really be able to give people a sense of, hey, you know, there's a water quality advisory. It rained a lot last night. The CSOs around the city are discharging. You know, you should be on alert and be careful if you're going to go in the water. There's a lot more work we could do here in this region to make the public aware.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about water quality in D.C. rivers with Jacob Fenston, WAMU's environment reporter. Robbie O'Donnell is the project coordinator at Anacostia Riverkeeper, and Phillip Musegaas is vice president of programs and litigation at Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the equivalent organization for the Potomac River. Robbie, you've heard mention about this before but can you tell us the ways that things like the Anacostia tunnel can help improve the river's water quality?
O'DONNELLYeah, so any time it rains in D.C., obviously, we have all these impervious services. It's not a natural system, obviously, so all that rain ends up either in the storm water system -- which can get piped down to Blue Plains, which is a wastewater treatment facility here in D.C. But about a third of the city does have this CSO system, or this combined sewage system where your storm water is getting put into the same pipe as the sewage from your house or your business or anything like that.
O'DONNELLSo, any time we get these big rain storms, you can basically -- like we got on two Mondays ago -- you can get these overflows into the river, which made sense in the earlier 1900s, when you had maybe a few hundred thousand people living here and people weren't really recreating too much on the river. But now we have over 800,000 people in D.C., and you have sewage possibly coming into the river from all these rain events we're getting. That's when it becomes this human health risk issue, which is kind of, again, driving this ban in D.C.
NNAMDIAnd I notice the Potomac is expected to get a similar tunnel in, what, 2030?
MUSEGAASIn 2030. Yeah, yeah.
NNAMDIJacob, there are a number of other large water pipes planned for different parts of our waterways. Can you talk about that, and what the hope is?
FENSTONYeah, I mean, it's sort of what Robbie was outlining, and there's also -- I mean, the Rock Creek also has a similar sewage discharge problem. And it is actually mostly being addressed by not a tunnel, but by green infrastructure. So, sort of retaining the storm water in place and rain gardens around the city, so that it doesn't overflow the sewage system. And there's some of that that's going to also be going into place in the Potomac watershed, so that that will help prevent some of the overflows.
FENSTONBut, yeah, it's this whole sort of mishmash of tunnels and green infrastructure that's supposed to address, overall, all of these combined sewer overflows in the district on the Potomac, Rock Creek and the Anacostia. And the timeline is yet -- bits of it go into place up until 2030.
NNAMDIBefore I go to the phones again, how do our rivers compare with other urban environments in the U.S. and internationally?
FENSTONYeah, well, unfortunately, we are not alone in this problem. There are 700 cities in the United States that have this sort of antiquated combined sewer system. And they're all kind of working their way through consent decrees with the EPA and trying to fix the problems.
FENSTONOne example I find interesting, because I used to live there, is Portland, Oregon. The Willamette River, when I lived there in the early 2000s, was, you know, nobody swam there. It had sewer overflows regularly. And in 2011, they finished, I think they call it, the Big Pipe, but it's the same kind of idea as here. And, since then, they've opened a bunch of swimming beaches. People are swimming there all the time. So, it can be done. It has been done.
FENSTONAnd then you mentioned Europe. There are a lot of examples in Europe of cities that have built these kind of amazing swim platforms, river pools where, you know, in Copenhagen or in Paris, you can go and you can jump in these, you know, urban waterways that used to be kind of off-limits. And now they have these lovely places to get in the water. And there's sort of a feasibility study that's been done recently, looking at places where something like that could go in the Anacostia River.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, Tommy Wells, the head of D.C. Water in Europe, he says he's looking forward to seeing something like that in the Anacostia.
FENSTONYeah. Well, he said by 2025, he thinks that there will be swimming platforms in the District of Columbia. So, we'll check back with him in a few years.
NNAMDISpeaking of D.C. Water, here is Vincent Morris, who is the spokesperson for D.C. Water, calling in. Vincent Morris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VINCENT MORRISThank you, Kojo. Thanks for this important conversation. And I couldn't help but call. You know, my ears were buzzing, because I felt like you can't really talk about the improvements to the river without talking about D.C. Water's contributions. And, you know, from our standpoint, we always look at it as, you know, this is a problem that we inherited from the federal government to fix this combined sewer overflow situation. And we're doing it with the cooperation of our customers who pay for it in their water bills each month.
NNAMDIThat would be me. Go ahead. (laugh)
MORRISThat's you, Kojo. That's myself, too. I live in Northeast D.C. I just wanted to remind the listeners of the amazing statistics of what we're seeing in the (word?). And I know that Jacob mentioned it in his story, but it's hard to imagine this. In just a little over a year's time, 2,118 tons of trash , 2,118 tons of trash that would've otherwise washed right into the Anacostia and then eventually made their way out to the bay or get stuck on the riverbanks, was collected and brought to Blue Plains -- conveyed to Blue Plains and our tunnel system. And it's out of the waterways.
MORRISSo, even if nothing else happens, that alone is a significant improvement in water quality and the enjoyment of boaters, kayakers, standup paddleboard, whatever. And that's not even mentioning the more than 5 million gallons of combined sewage and wastewater. So, we're happy, but, it's true. There's a long way to go. But we're really, really pleased with the progress we've made in just a year's time. And there's still so much more to go.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Vincent Morris. Sorry to interrupt you, but there are a whole lot of other people who want to join this conversation, and we don't have a great deal of time left. So, here's Eric in Falls Church, Virginia. Eric, your turn.
ERICHey, good afternoon. Just wanted to bring to attention that swimming has been going on for quite some time, and I'm sure many other people know. But the Navy's School of Diving and Salvage was established in the late '20s, and ran through 1981, there in the Navy yard. And swimming in the Potomac and Anacostia, diving and learning those different tricks was part of the daily routine. One of the tests was a timed swim across the Anacostia from the dive school. There was a landmark sign, you had to get out of the water, run around the sign, and jump back in and swim back to the school. And you were quizzed on, what did the sign say? And it's no boating, no fishing, no swimming. (laugh) So, at any rate...
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, Eric. Here is Jacob in Montgomery County. Jacob, your turn.
JACOBWow, thanks for having me on. It's great to be among such esteemed colleagues in the environmental space. I just wanted to highlight some of the great work of young people both in the District and in Montgomery County. The Latin American Youth Center, where I have the privilege of working, operates a green infrastructure job training program, which really promotes youth as the next generation of environmental stewards through management, inspection of six streams in Rock Creek, and six east of the river, as well as inspection maintenance of 75 river-smart homes and other low-impact development features throughout the District.
JACOBAnd so, you know, it's a privilege to be working alongside young people who are noticing the changing climate and the changing environment and really doing something about it. And so our hats off to Director Wells, and his counterpart ,newly appointed Director Ortiz on the Montgomery County side, for really creating spaces for young people to get involved.
NNAMDIHey, Jacob, thank you very much for your call. And Jacob mentioned his esteemed colleagues. Robbie, you're with the Anacostia Riverkeepers. What does your organization do?
O'DONNELLSo, we pretty much do anything that helps protect, connect, restore the Anacostia River. Like a lot of water keepers and river keeper organizations, we want to see the river be fishable and swimmable, which, again, is what Jacob was talking about a little bit earlier with that (word?). When we talk about fishable, we want people to be able to catch a fish and eat the fish, so not just catch and release.
O'DONNELLUnfortunately, what's going on right now with that is some of the toxins in the river. Thankfully, Tommy Wells and DOEE are doing something about those toxins in the river with the Anacostia River Sediment Project. So, they're moving along with that. They've produced a remedial investigation, a feasibility study. And then we also deal with trash. We deal with the bacteria situation.
O'DONNELLThis past summer, in 2018, we actually just got a big grant from the District Department of Energy and Environment to actually start this first citizen science monitoring program in all D.C. waters -- so, Rock Creek, Potomac and the Anacostia -- with the help from Potomac Riverkeeper, Rock Creek Conservancy, Audubon Naturalist Society, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. A bunch of these good, local organizations to help us monitor 22 sites across D.C. to basically help kind of suss out the swim-ability issue. Because there has been monitoring for bacteria throughout D.C. from DOEE and other organizations, but it hasn't really been publicized to the public.
O'DONNELLSo, as river keepers, we kind of get this -- we're in this special position where we get to get grants like this, where we get to do this monitoring and kind of give this data to the public to let them make informed decisions. Basically, tell them how the water's doing. For those of you on the Anacostia, the water's doing much, much better. We've actually documented around three sites on the Anacostia -- Buzzard Point, Washington Channel, where the new wharf development is, and around Kingman Lake, where more times than not, the water actually has been safe for swimming, if it had been not banned in D.C.
NNAMDIPhillip, you do much the same with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, but you have a data collection boat, I hear. Tell us about that and what you do with the Seadog.
MUSEGAASWe do. We're very fortunate to have received a donation of a 42 food workboat from a retired Navy admiral last year. And the Seadog is a -- we got funding to put a floating laboratory on the boat, so we can take samples really anywhere in the watershed. And we have a 15,000-square-mile watershed that includes the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah Valley.
MUSEGAASSo, we're expanding. We have three sites that we're doing outside of D.C., two sites in Virginia, and one in Maryland, in National Harbor, where we're sampling for bacteria. And our plan is to use the Seadog and our floating lab to expand that program both down river and up river a little ways. We can only get the Seadog up to just above D.C. before we run into Great Falls. So, we can't go up there, but we have other ways of taking samples up river.
MUSEGAASAnd, you know, our goal is to use that citizen science and that data, combined with our enforcement work. We do legal enforcement against polluters, file lawsuits in federal court against polluters. And, you know, our goal is to both protect clean water in the Potomac and the Shenandoah and protect the public's right to clean water and access to the river. You know, we're always looking to enhance access, and part of that is, of course, making sure people have the information they need to swim and to paddle safely in these rivers.
NNAMDIWe're almost out of time, Jacob, but making the water clean is only half the battle, right? How do you undo decades of bad press?
FENSTONYeah, I think that's -- you know, a few people have told me that that's, like, actually a bigger challenge now than the technical aspects of cleaning up the water, which, you know, have been underway for so long. But, yeah, people just have this engrained belief that if they get in the water, their skin's going to come off and they're going to be a skeleton when they get out. (laugh)
FENSTONSo, I think it's actually just a matter of, you know, really showing people that the water is clean. And I think if there were a beautiful swimming dock on the Anacostia or the Potomac and people were, you know, sunbathing there and jumping in, it would be -- I think if people saw that, they would change their minds pretty quickly.
MUSEGAASAnd, if I can, you know, our goal, we do organized paddling events every summer on the Potomac and the Shenandoah. And we do a monuments paddle right here in D.C., along the Georgetown waterfront. You know, we believe one of the best ways to educate people about the river is to get them out on the water. And for many people that we bring out, it's the first time they've ever been out in the river.
NNAMDITake pictures, take video, pass it around. (laugh)
NNAMDIRobbie O'Donnell, thank you so much for joining us.
O'DONNELLThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIPhillip Musegaas, thank you for joining us.
MUSEGAASThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJacob Fenston, always a pleasure.
FENSTONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis conversation about the health of our local waterways was produced by Maura Currie. And today's update on the recent violence in D.C. was produced by Monna Kashfi. We're a week away from our live town hall event in Anacostia, where we'll be talking about small businesses, entrepreneurship and employment east of the river. The event is sold out, but we still want to hear your thoughts. Go to kojoshow.org, where you can weigh in, and click on the Kojo in your community post. We'll also air highlights from the town hall on August 1st. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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