The Anacostia River Trail is home to a large open landscape that runs the along the Anacostia River where pedestrians enjoy the scenery with family and friends for sports, biking, and outdoor activities.
This community staple is visually appealing until you take a closer look at the nearby river bank. From there, people can see heaps of trash and debris that pollute the river. Everything from plastic cups to trash bags can be seen there.
Following the 2009 Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act, DC stores were obligated to charge five cents for bags as an initiative to clean up the river, handing off some of the river clean-up costs to residents. “I often wonder what the money is being used for and if there is a true measure of accountability for the money that is being collected to restore the Anacostia River,” said Sadiqa Long, Ward 7 resident.
The main sources of pollution to the Anacostia river are several components. Stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows, and decades-old toxic contamination.
“For one thing, there has a been a significant decrease in the amount of bags in the river,” said Maureen Farrington of the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS). For more than 25 years, this community organization has championed the efforts to clean up the river.
DC reported $2 million in revenue from the bag fee in 2014. It has consistently increased each year since 2010. Yet residents are still uninformed as to what exactly the bag fee pays for.
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a non-profit that works to protect waterways across the country. The Anacostia River Cleanup is among its clients. “Every time it rains, water runs off of the developed landscape and flows directly into the Anacostia without any treatment, carrying things it’s picked up along the way,” Rebecca Hammer of NRDC.
The Anacostia River has been under heavy pollutants for generations. June 1, 2012, Pepco closed an old power plant that once sat on its banks and used the river for dumping and cooling. It had serviced the city since 1906. This coupled with DC’s combined sewer system, that allows sewage and rainwater to overflow into the river during heavier rainstorms, has left the Anacostia unsafe for drinking or swimming.
Local watershed and community groups like the NRDC, AWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have fought hard to clean up the Anacostia in recent years. “The river’s history of contamination has serious environmental justice implications because of the low-income and minority residents that live near the water and in the watershed,” said Hammer.
DC residents sometimes refer to the extra cash forked over for bags as the “bag tax”, yet officials explain that it is not a “tax” per se, but rather a bag fee that has been specifically appropriated for the river. “I take bags when I shop and sometimes I forgot those same bags and have to pay for the tax, said Long. “The mission to restore the Anacostia River is a great idea, however, I do not feel that DC residents should be responsible for incurring this cost,” said Long.
There are four bag fee revenue sources. The bag fee, enforcement fines from local merchants, Anacostia River Specialty license plates, and voluntary contributions.
“It would take years and millions of dollars to clean everything out of the river,” said Matt Kuniholm, Environmental and Social Performance Officer for the Millennium Challenge, “they would have to take big barges and scrape the bottom of the river, the bag fee could never cover the cost of it.”
The signage in local stores encourages citizens to ‘Skip the bag, save the river’. Yet, the bag fee has been appropriated as more of an educational and preventative tool used to help prevent future pollution. It funds solutions like green infrastructures, watershed education, trash capture, outreach and stream restoration.
Over the past five years, DC has implemented a throng of environmentally friendly initiatives such as Foam Free DC which banned the use of Styrofoam containers in restaurants, and River Smart, initiatives that help reduce stormwater pollution.
The Anacostia Watershed Society works closely with DC government to educate the community on how to keep the river clean. “The fee helps to fund the Anacostia Watershed Steward’s Academy where adults come in and learn how to take care of the watershed” said Farrington.
Capstone Projects are funded for adults to build sustainable water solutions, and Pontoon boat tours are funded as a part of an initiative to give school-aged children the opportunity to get out on the water and explore. Some of the funds also go to giving reusable bags away.
Since Jan 2009, DC has installed 6 trash traps running at various points in the river. They have
captured more than 25,000 pounds of trash. There is one at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens right where the old power plant stood.
“There’s a cost to convenience and progress,” said Farrington, “and people made money but now there’s a cost to the convenience of having a bag,” she said.
More than six years after the implementation of the bag fee and DC has seen major progress but there is still work to be done. The Department of the Environment still holds regular testing of water and ground pollution of the Anacostia.
Funding is in place for many of the massive infrastructure projects needed to restore the Anacostia River. A settlement agreement with DC Water secures an investment of $2 billion to prevent sewage overflows. Construction is already moving forward and on track to be completed by 2022.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations require the District of Columbia, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County to fund extensive stormwater management efforts, and those efforts are already well underway.
DC Water is building a huge underground tunnel that will be used to capture and store the rainwater/sewage mixture that now overflows into the river during rain events. This tunnel will prevent 98% of overflows when it’s complete.
The Anacostia Watershed Society hopes that by stopping new pollution, restoring natural systems, and rebuilding the community’s relationship to the Anacostia River, we can reach our goal of a swimmable and fishable river by 2025.