Reflecting on a watershed year

Reflecting on a watershed year
November 27, 2023 by: Christopher E. Williams, Anacostia Watershed Society President & CEO

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Some years are about new beginnings, others are about long efforts coming to fruition. At AWS, 2023 has been tremendously exciting, because we’ve seen plenty of both. It has been a year of major milestones achieved, ongoing work reaching new heights, and exciting new initiatives getting under way. A few examples:

An over twenty-year effort concludes with a huge victory for the river!

In 2000, AWS and partners sued DC Water for violations of the federal Clean Water Act, arguing that the utility was not doing enough to prevent combined sewer and stormwater overflows that were dumping over 2 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the river every year. In 2023, we celebrated the successful culmination of that litigation: the completion of a tunnel system that will intercept 98% of that sewage and send it instead to the Blue Plains treatment plant for proper treatment. After over twenty years of steady effort, a huge victory for water quality in the Anacostia River is secured.

A long campaign to clean toxic pollutants from the river notches a historic win!

After years of advocacy by AWS and others, in 2014 the DC Council passed legislation requiring the DC Department of Energy & the Environment to create a plan for cleaning toxic sediment from the bed of the river, the result of decades of unchecked pollution from industrial activity on the river’s banks. In 2023, the DC Attorney General’s Office announced that one of those polluters, Pepco, had reached a settlement that will contribute $47 million to the clean-up, a vital first step toward marshalling the resources necessary to complete this ambitious environmental restoration project.

A keystone species of the watershed restored!

After two decades of dedicated effort, AWS has successfully re-established wild rice in the wetlands of the Anacostia River. This keystone species was virtually eliminated from the watershed by pollution and habitat destruction. Through careful harvest and planting of wild rice seeds by our students and volunteers, and predator control to allow the plants to grow, we’re up to 23 acres of self-sustaining wild rice in 2023, and growing!  

Mussel Power achieves an important milestone!

After launching in just a few DC and Prince George’s County schools less than five years ago, AWS’s Mussel Power! – a hands-on program in which students learn about Anacostia River ecology by propagating, studying, and releasing native mussels -  is now fully integrated into the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) science curriculum, including all 25 PGCPS high schools and 6 middle schools. Together with the dedicated administrators and teachers of PGCPS, AWS brought the wonder of our mighty mussels to over 2,050 students in 2023!

Modelling climate resilience with green infrastructure!

In 2023, rain gardens, cisterns, and bayscapes created with our neighborhood partners treated more than 8,100 gallons of stormwater runoff, modelling nature-based solutions for remediating stormwater pollution, soil erosion, and localized flooding that will only intensify as climate change takes hold. Working with landowners and houses of worship in local communities, our DOEE sponsored River Smart Communities program installed five new rain gardens and planted nearly 1,300 native plants. These rain gardens will slow the flow of intense rains on the nearby paved surfaces, and the soil and plants will help contain and process pollutants before they enter storm drains and, ultimately, the river. 

Scoring a big win against plastic pollution, and preparing for the next challenge!

In 2023, the Prince George’s County Council passed legislation banning most single-use plastic bags by 2024. AWS’s experience advocating successfully for the bag tax in DC was invaluable to this effort, and AWS staff testified at multiple public hearings in support of the Prince George’s county legislation.

In addition, AWS partnered with several DC environmental and community organizations to found 3RC for DC, the Return, Refund, Recycle Coalition, dedicated to the passage of legislation in DC to prevent plastic bottles from fouling our rivers and streams.          

Celebrating our wonderful supporters and volunteers!

In 2023, we put the pandemic behind us and joyously welcomed our community to River Homecoming at District Winery – our first in-person celebration since 2019. It was wonderful to see 120 old friends and new ones, raise a little money, and honor four outstanding individuals – Lora Nunn, Leonina Price, Marina Gutierrez, and Hazel Wartchow - as our 2023 River Heroes.

Also shaking off the cobwebs of the pandemic, our annual Earth Day Cleanup saw nearly 1,600 folks out in their neighborhood parks and streams, cleaning up trash and planting trees and rain gardens.  In fact, our volunteers planted more than 850 native trees, shrubs and wetland plants in the Anacostia watershed in 2023, helping to restore the watershed’s tree canopy that has been devastated by habitat loss and invasive species.

It takes a Society!

It has truly been a watershed year (pun definitely intended). We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot more to do. As we move on to 2024 – our 35th anniversary year! – I extend our deepest gratitude to everyone in the Anacostia Watershed Society. That includes members, volunteers, supporters, staff, board, partners, and everyone working toward a clean and healthy Anacostia watershed. It's our shared commitment, passion, and collective effort that have made 2023 a year of triumphs, progress, and positive change for the Anacostia watershed. I can’t wait to see what we accomplish next!

On behalf of the staff and board of AWS, I wish all of you a joyous holiday season and a very happy new year.

Click to enlarge image ColmarManor-arty-bottle.jpg

In 2023, we celebrated the renewed commitment to stop new pollution from going into the river.

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