Accessibility links


Young People Learn to Protect Trashed Rivers

  • Rosanne Skirble

National Fishing and Boating Week (June 3-10) in the United States is an annual celebration that encourages Americans to get out and enjoy the nation’s rivers and streams.

At a kick-off event on the Anacostia River in Washington, it was also an opportunity to create new stewards to help protect these natural waterways.

Outdoor classroom

Several hundred Washington school children went to class on the Anacostia River, where they were greeted on a pier not far from the U.S. Capitol by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel.

The children fan out across the pier, just steps from Washington's baseball stadium. While many have gone to a baseball game, fewer have boated or fished on the river. Some don lifejackets for a boat ride with Jewel. Others model boats out of aluminum foil, talk to naturalists or get a fishing lesson.

While it's fun to fish, these kids won’t take fish home. That’s because the Anacostia is among the nation’s most polluted waterways. A recent study finds that more than half of all bottom feeders on the river, like catfish, have liver tumors and another quarter have visible lesions.

Trashed river

Dennis Chestnut grew up on the river and now he runs Groundwork Anacostia River DC. The group links community development to the health of the waterway.

“It’s an opportunity for these kids to see this trash, and I’m quite sure that some will begin asking questions," he said. "Why is this trash here?”

Bladensburg Park is a less polluted stretch of the Anacostia about five kilometers away in Maryland. Two hundred years ago, the port rivaled New York in size and silt from development logged the waterway and, as the population grew, so did pollution.

"There [are] a million people that live in this tiny watershed that is 176 square miles [456 square kilometers]," said Lee Cain of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "And because there are so many people, there is so much impact."

Looking forward

At Kennilworth Park, a former landfill that is now a grassy field, Cain and Chestnut go down a stepp hill to a stream that feeds the Anacostia. Chestnut's group manages a little trap in the stream and Cain goes knee deep into the muck to help clean it up.

"Eighty percent of the trash in the Anacostia is bottles, Styrofoam or plastic bags," Cain said.

He loads trash bags with the bottles and throws balls lodged in the trap to Chestnut, who is standing on the bank talking to Trevon Brox, 18, and Anthony Smith, 19, who've come prospecting for jobs.

“One of the things that this opportunity proves to guys like you, who are young guys, who have a whole lot of work time in front of you," Chestnut said to them, "this is good honest work, does a great service and you can earn income.”

Brox and Smith live nearby, but grew up largely ignoring the river and are shocked by what they see.

“This is my first time I’ve really been up close and that’s a sticky situation down there,” Brox said. "We all need to come together and stand up and keep our environment clean because that's a safety hazard."

“To be honest," Smith said, "I never even knew there was a park here, never really knew about the river or anything.”

Toxic brew

Twenty thousand tons of trash are thrown into the Anacostia every year. It turns into a toxic brew including sewage overflows and runoff from driveways, sidewalks and streets.

Chestnut says the litter traps he manages barely make a dent in the pollution. But, he adds, what they can do is get people like Brox and Smith to care enough to do something about it.

“The goal is to get the river to the point that it’s fishable and swimmable," Chestnut said. "What it is going to take is getting everyone engaged at whatever level that they can become engaged, from the youngest to the oldest, to do their part.”

The health of the Anacostia and rivers like it around the country and around the world depend on that commitment.