Second River

Posted February 13, 2004 at 3:32pm

What canaries used to be to coal mines, brown bullhead catfish are to rivers — warnings of grave danger. Catfish are bottom feeders, and the higher their incidence of cancerous liver tumors, the more polluted their habitat is deemed to be. By that standard, Capitol Hill’s neighborhood river, the Anacostia, rivals the filthiest ever recorded in the nation’s history.

The Washington Post reported last week that a forthcoming U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study will show that 50 percent to 68 percent of mature bullhead catfish in the Anacostia had liver tumors in 2001 — as bad a rate as in 1997, when they were last tested in the Anacostia, and as bad as the worst river ever tested, Ohio’s Black River during the 1980s.

The Post story led the Metro section but should have been on page A1. It’s a local disgrace, a regional disgrace and a national disgrace that a 15-year effort to clean up Washington’s “second river” seems to have achieved so little. The master plan for cleaning it up and improving the surrounding neighborhoods, the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, calls for the river to be made “swimmable” by 2025 at a cost of $3 billion. The unimproved fish cancer rate suggests that steps to clean up the river are being overtaken by new streams of pollution, mainly urban runoff.

The Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee, a local, state and federal consortium, has set in motion efforts to reduce pollution loads, restore the ecology of the river, increase wetland acreage, expand forest cover and increase public and private participation. More than 700 separate projects have been identified — the largest being a $1 billion plan by the Washington Water and Sewer Authority to eliminate sewage flows into the river — and about one-third are completed or under way.

But the Anacostia project doesn’t have the priority that Potomac River cleanup did in the 1980s. The Potomac is Washington’s “first river” and is closely identified with our nation’s capital the world over. Still, it was once a cesspool where swimming was banned in 1971 because of “extraordinary levels of pollutants from human and animal waste.” But once the federal government, neighboring states and the District of Columbia got serious in 1983, it was only six years until national fishing tournaments began to be held on the river.

If a cleanup of the Potomac in that time was possible, it shouldn’t be taking 35 years to do the same for the Anacostia. And, the rate of liver cancer in bullhead catfish ought to be falling, not staying at record levels. Much of the world may not even know that Washington has a second river, but those of us who live here — and that includes Congress and the executive branch — should strive to make it as beautiful as the first.