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Grassroots Organizations and Volunteers Mobilize Energies to Restore Anacostia River Wetlands

The Anacostia River, the lesser known river of Washington D.C., is symbolic of District living and all the area has to offer. The Anacostia used to be quite thriving and healthy. It was historically fringed with emergent, diverse wetlands, and habitats that made homes for animals from birds to bears. Shad and other fish species thrived there. First mapped by Captain John Smith in 1612, the Anacostia River unfortunately became highly degraded in the Twentieth Century due to erosion, wetland loss, and polluted runoff and sewage as nearby industrial practices intensified and population growth increased.

Fast forward to 1990 and the D.C. waterfront area of the Anacostia River was a dump-site for industrial machinery. There was no waterfront access, 90% of the wetland cover was gone, and the river banks were lined with abandoned buildings. That’s where Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) stepped in. A grassroots conservation organization, ECC has dedicated itself to engaging youth and locals on issues of conservation, specifically regarding the Anacostia River. They are focused on making the water cleaner through group clean-ups, properly managed trash traps, wetland restoration, water quality testing, and community engagement and awareness. The youth component helps young people develop skills and interests that’s are transferable to real-world positions and promote environmental stewardship. ECC reconnected the Anacostia River to the local people whose activities in return help recovered the river. In the last 20 years they have cleaned up the machinery dump, helped refurbish the derelict buildings, and restored the wetlands. In 2008 the D.C. government funded a larger restoration effort, cleaning out the wetland area and installing floating wetlands at Diamond Teague Park with the help of landscape architects. They added new piers and docks at the public access points and continue to maintain the restored areas.

With the help of funding through EPA’s 5 Star grant program, ECC built the capacity to restore two 8500 square foot areas of wetlands and are slated to start a third area this spring. The spring 2017 project will create new space and includes planting native species. One of the most cutting edge aspects of their projects are the trash traps. Because run off transports litter to the river and collects where the river and restored wetlands meet, trash traps were installed in the area near the Washington Nationals Park. This was done through a joint effort with D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) to meet the District’s TMDL for the Anacostia River. ECC helps weigh and sort the trash in the traps and sends their data to DOEE.

A graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School named Shawn was recruited for the program ECC Youth Program. He worked on water quality testing and the installation of the trash traps and recalls the trash traps were his favorite part. He analogized, “The wetland is like my room and if you see trash in your room, you don’t want it there, so you clean it up. That’s like the trash trap.” As a result, Shawn enjoys his time alone in nature and has developed a deep appreciation for wetlands. Grassroots organizations drawing on small EPA grants have not only helped the city’s youth, they have channeled their energies into recovering one of the Capitol’s historic natural resources.