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The Anacostia River can again be swimmable and fishable

The Anacostia River is widely called DC's "forgotten river," a term coined by Anacostia Watershed Society's founding president, Robert Boone, to reflect the river's second-class status in our nation's capital city.

Photo by Ardyiii on Flickr.

The Anacostia should be a community asset: a river safe for swimming and fishing, per the federal Clean Water Act. In many ways the Anacostia River is not forgotten anymore, but rather a well-kept secret for the recreational opportunities it does offer, including biking, paddling, and surprising beauty and solitude.

My organization, the Anacostia Watershed Society, has been working to improve the Anacostia for 20 years. We and the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association will discuss the river and its recreational future with local leaders and residents at a public forum this Saturday.

At the head of the river in Maryland, over a dozen crew teams from the region call Bladensburg Waterfront Park home, including University of Maryland, Catholic University, Elizabeth Seton High School, DeMatha Catholic High School, and Walter Johnson High School. You can even learn to row with the Washington Rowing School, rent a canoe or paddle boat from Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation, or take a guided river tour with AWS.

This park is also the gateway to the Anacostia Tributary Trail System, a biker's paradise of trails stretching up to Greenbelt and Wheaton that within 2 years will connect southward along the river to the existing Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in the District.

The Anacostia River has a rich history of recreational use. Eastern Power Boat Club, founded in 1905, is the country's first power boat club, and Seafarer's Yacht Club, founded in 1945, is the oldest African-American yacht club on the east coast. Seafarer's has a long commitment to community service and the health of the river, starting the annual Anacostia River clean up that has grown into a major annual Earth Day event, and AWS is a proud partner.

Other members of the Historic Anacostia Boating Association are also along Boathouse Row (Water and M Streets SE), including District Yacht Club and Washington Yacht Club, as well as the Anacostia Community Boathouse, a home for rowers and recreational paddlers.

AWS is a founding member of the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association, and with ACBA's excellent new facilities at 1900 M Street SE, AWS has begun to increase our recreational paddling programs. In 2011, AWS "Paddle Nights" attracted several dozen people down to the river every 2 weeks and opened their eyes to the possibilities of a clean, healthy Anacostia River.

If you don't know about something, it is hard to care about it. In short, recreation equals stewardship, and we believe that more citizens should come to know and love the Anacostia River.

In light of AWS activities to clean up the river, we are often asked if it is safe to recreate on the Anacostia River. The answer is yes, if you are sensible about it. Don't swim, don't drink the water, and be careful about eating the fish. But please walk, bike, row, paddle, or simply look at and enjoy the river.

In order to share this information more widely, AWS and ACBA are hosting a River Health and Public Recreation Forum this Saturday, February 11, 9-11 am, at the First District Police Station, 101 M Street SW.

Councilmember Tommy Wells, Dr. Janet Phoenix of the DC Environmental Health Collaborative, Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland, Collin Burrell of the District Department of Environment, and Donal Barron of DC Water will give a brief panel presentation, followed by an audience Q&A. Topics will range from recreational safety to the risks posed by the river's various pollution sources, including bacteria, stormwater, toxics, and trash.

Although we've still got a ways to go to reach our goal of a swimmable and fishable Anacostia River, it is already a community asset for those who know its charms. Come down to the river and learn for yourself what many locals already know: the Anacostia is an urban oasis, and could yet be a better one if we have the willpower to make it happen. This well-kept secret is really a hidden gem.

Brent Bolin is a community activist and non-profit executive with a background in environmental law, science, and policy. He is passionate about social justice, clean water, sustainable urbanism, and the Anacostia River. Brent served on the city council in Mount Rainier, MD and (rarely) blogs about local development issues


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Keep on fighting for the river, AWS! Once those connections on the cycling/hiking trails are completed, connecting Bladensburg with the Arboretum, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and points south, there's going to be a surge of people seeing the river every day. I sure hope all those eyeballs will make a difference in advocating for the river in the future!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Feb 9, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

@Geoffrey Hatchard


It's pretty amazing to canoe on the Anacostia and to have a beaver swim alongside the boat, or to watch great blue herons spearing fish. And Kenilworth and Arboretum are gems.

by jnb on Feb 9, 2012 11:25 am • linkreport

Aren't there bald eagles nesting near the banks of the Anacostia? I could swear I saw some several years ago. Blew my mind.

by Ward 1 Guy on Feb 9, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

Thanks everyone for the kind words about the Anacostia. My favorite part of my job is taking people out on the river and blowing their minds with all the birds, turtles, and other wildlife that call the river home.

Geoff is right about the completed hiker/biker trail - it will be a total game changer. For starters, right now it is a real hassle to go between the Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens without a boat, but the proposed bridge connecting the two will make that a snap.

There are definitely bald eagles along the river Ward 1 Guy. There's a nest on the east bank near the southern tip of Kingman Island and likely one nearer the DC/MD line. And there are so many osprey, egrets, and herons that you almost get bored of seeing them.

by Brent Bolin on Feb 9, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

@Ward 1 Guy There must be. I've seen them from my front porch near the Stadium-Armory Metro Stop.

Which just makes me that much more appreciative of the work Brent and AWS has been doing. My family has enjoyed paddling night quite a bit. We've lived here for a decade and had no sense of how much the Anacostia had to offer, literally just several hundred feet from our house.

Now, if only someone could do something about the busy arterial road, acres of empty parking lots, and fences making it difficult to get there!!!!

by Tim Krepp on Feb 9, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

I love the Anacostia and would like to at least see the surface free from floating bottles and cans in my lieftime. If anyone wants to look at photos of the various birds and other widlife I've spotted along the river, see here:

by MrTinDC on Feb 9, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport

I would say that is good advice to not drink the water, eat any fish, swim for fear of the toxicity so it may be safe to RECREATE, but is it safe to PROCREATE on the river is the real question?

by scott on Feb 9, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

Couldn't agree more, and as an open water swimmer, it's a crying shame that DC, a city surrounded by water on two sides, does not have a single place to open water swim. Between the DC Water stormwater projects, the AWI, and all the good work Brent and others are doing, I hope that within the next 5 years it will be safe (from pollution, swimming in rivers is always dangerous) to swim in our two rivers.

by Will on Feb 9, 2012 12:32 pm • linkreport

I must say the thought of such makes me currently itch but I so agree and am willing to support the effort.

I've run along Anacostia Park a lot and always wanted to do some rowing.

Just never knew how to go about it...

Any suggestions?

by HogWash on Feb 9, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

Brent, Thanks for promoting the Anacostia River as a great place for some R&R...I have gone kayaking on the Anacostia on a hot summer day, and felt the peacefulness of the river. The more people who partake of boating opportunities on the Anacostia, the more will be inspired to join us in restoring the river. Investing in greener, more beautiful communities, is part of that restoration.

by Diane Cameron on Feb 9, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

I think Gabe Horchler's story is fascinating and inspiring. Anyone that wants to see how great of a transportation/recreation resource the Anacostia is should Google/Youtube "Gabe Horchler Anacostia."

by Jamie on Feb 9, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

There's really so much going on in terms of Anacostia River access that's either open, just about to open or only a few years off. The different trail systems in DC and MD meeting up are really going to be a game-changer for the river and peoples expectations about its health. You can already sense the momentum building with the work that's been done.

@Tim Krepp: Not sure if you're aware of it, but check out ( I think that plan, or something like it, would be a huge step up from the asphalt wasteland between Hill East and the River.

by Eric Sibley on Feb 9, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

@MrT, wow!

by HogWash on Feb 9, 2012 1:11 pm • linkreport

HogWash: The link to AWS' paddling/rowing programs (and other recreation) is right above here in the post, as is a link to the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association, which in turn links to additional rowing resources.

by Jaime Fearer on Feb 9, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

Brent has rightly concentrated on all the wonderful recreational opportunities on, or immediately adjacent to the Anacostia, but I know Brent--as a lifelong fan--appreciates the potential gain for the river that development in the vicinity of Nationals Park can deliver. For example, the re-design of the Florida Rock site: will mean one of the biggest eye-sores on that part of the river will soon be gone and hopefully in its place a new mixed-use development whose managers will be selling to tenants the natural beauty of the site looking both upstream and down stream along the river. The development in that part of the river will hopefully create a whole new generation of Washington residents invested in having the Anacostia work for them both recreationally and economically. That last part may be the most important. Good luck Captain Brent!!

by Ted Leavengood on Feb 9, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

@Jamie, thanks! This is what happens when you don't read closely enough.

Looking at the calendar, it doesn't seem as if they'll be offering lessons via the paddling clinic anytime soon.


by HogWash on Feb 9, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

@Eric Sibley, I've seen it. It's a bit north of me, but would be a great asset.

by Tim Krepp on Feb 9, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport


If you want to learn to row on the Anacostia, Capital Rowing Club and the DC Strokes both offer introductory classes. No previous experience is necessary. I took DC Strokes' class 2 years ago, with absolutely no prior rowing experience, and have been rowing ever since -- I highly recommend it.

AWS offer occasional informal paddling nights out of the Anacostia Community Boathouse.

The National Capital Area Women's Paddling Association also provide introductory paddling programs for outrigger canoes and dragon boats. (Their name is somewhat outdated; the organization has been co-ed for many years.)

There are also a variety of collegiate and high-school programs that operate out of the Anacostia Boathouse. They're all linked to on the ACBA website.

On the surface, the river's a lot less polluted than its reputation would have you believe. Although garbage, silt, and organic debris (ie. tree branches) do tend to accumulate in the river after a big rainstorm, on a nice day the river can be gorgeous.

It is without a doubt one of DC's biggest hidden gems, and I couldn't be happier to see it finally getting some attention.

The bag tax has had a noticeable and dramatic impact on the river's appearance. Plastic bags are no longer a significant source of surface debris. Now, styrofoam and plastic bottles make up the bulk of the trash pollution after storms. Reducing the amount of urban rainwater runoff should further reduce the amount of pollution in and on the river.

On the other hand, many portions of the banks along the river are in fact (far) more polluted than the river itself. For many years, Washington Gas operated a massive industrial facility just east of the Navy Yard (now home to ACBA, and adjacent to the Eastern Power Boat Club, and Seafarer's Yacht Club). This, and other industrial activity along the river's banks has left the soil beneath the river's banks polluted with some extremely nasty chemicals. While remediation efforts have eliminated these pollutants from many locations, and various studies have deemed the cleanups to have largely been successful [in the 11th St Bridge EIS and a few other places, I can't seem to find the links], there have been allegations of a possible cancer cluster near this site.

[Important note: The river itself and current site of the Boathouse should be largely free of these pollutants. To the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no evidence that recreational boating activity on the river has negative health effects.]

Recently, the DC and Federal governments forced Washington Gas to pay $700,000 to perform additional remediation steps on portions of this site. Among other things, this lingering pollution was one factor that forced the Boathouse to relocate so far away from its original site after the construction of the new 11th St Bridge necessitated the demolition of its old facility.

Offtopic sidenote: The last time DC was "occupied" was in 1932, after the 43,000-strong "Bonus Army" marched on the Capitol, demanding immediate payment of WWI pensions. The protesters camped on the current site of Anacostia Park, on the river's southern bank. The above-linked picture is remarkable for the number of landmarks along the river that still exist today, largely-unchanged.

[Disclaimer: I currently serve as the webmaster for the Anacostia Community Boathouse, and am a member of the DC Strokes Rowing Club. All of these opinions are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of either organization.]

by andrew on Feb 9, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

Now here's a guy willing to take the plunge and go for a swim in the Anacostia right now:

by MrTinDC on Feb 9, 2012 3:43 pm • linkreport

@Andrew, Thanks!

I checked them out and like DCStrokes price better but Capital Rowing's schedule so I might go with the latter.

I'm a water wuss of the highest order so even something such as this would have my nerves completely shot! But I'm gonna do it

by HogWash on Feb 9, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport


I agree that a connected ART will make a huge difference.

Doing something like this:


would at least start getting other people using the river, even if they can't exactly be in it.

In the meantime, people can take water tours, mostly of the Maryland part, from the Bladensburg Waterfront Park. I highly recommend doing so.


If NPS would allow docking at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and if USDA would allow docking at the National Arboretum, that would extend the power of these tours, and work to get more people engaged with the river and the civic assets along it.

Goody Clancy has done some interesting river plans over the years:



by Richard Layman on Feb 9, 2012 6:31 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman

The increased access and docking piece is in the works. AWS is the steward for the Anacostia portion of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail ( which will result in additional access points being built at places like Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. There already is a floating dock at the National Arboretum.

by Brent Bolin on Feb 9, 2012 6:54 pm • linkreport

Brent, your vision of the Anacostia's future is inspiring. And I love Andrew's note on the history of the river. Keep up all your great work!

by Jennifer Chavez on Feb 9, 2012 8:20 pm • linkreport

I love this article Brent. I think what is equally inspiring is all the comments from community members that have a clear connection to the river. Moving past all the negative stereotypes and bringing forward the positives stories is a big step in the restoration of the Anacostia River.

@Jamie mentioned Gabe Horchler's story, which is truly amazing. You can watch more "River Stories" here:

by Emma Boorboor on Feb 10, 2012 8:16 am • linkreport


Excellent article! It's also encouraging to see the large number of thoughtful comments that it prompted. The AWS has been a disproportionately large force for change on the Anacostia, holding governmental feet to the fire. Keep reminding the powers that be that most of the watershed is in Maryland and the "fishable-swimmable" vision will require continued focus on working together.

As many if the comments have noted, the more people live and work and enjoy recreation near the Anacostia and its tributaries, the more grass roots support there will be for restoration.

Keep up the good work.

by Ted Graham on Feb 10, 2012 8:32 am • linkreport

The spirit of Old Man Anacostia River is thankful for AWS and all the groups and citizen who get down and dirty in their restoration efforts. You have to dig into the city's history to find this but... it was initially thought that Washington would develop from east to west with the Eastern Branch being a major commercial hub.

by John Muller on Feb 10, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

I get very depressed when I think about the health of that river because so few people who a in the positions to make a difference seem to give 2 craps. The sediment run off into it will take a monsterous effort to stop and even more to dredge properly. The trash just keeps going in and Prince Georgians still can't even pass a frickin bag bill that has been proven to work in DC and MoCo. While single stream recycling is great, Id gladly drop recycling of plastic and glass bottle and tin cans for a nickel deposit. I joke with Brent that we should stop all stream cleanups and let the shit pile up and become a huge national embarrassment. We keep cleaning up and pulling out trash and then people come by and say its not so bad because they have no clue about the ton of plastic bags, bottle, tires and other crap that was pulled out, Keep up the fight AWS, it's worth it....just so damn frustrating,

by DyemanJim on Feb 10, 2012 10:23 pm • linkreport

I think they should dredge it to get all the sediment out of the bottom this would also help get trash out

by tyler on Jan 2, 2015 10:30 am • linkreport

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