The Anacostia was once a deep, crystalline river teeming with life. But history descended upon the Anacostia when the Chesapeake Bay became one of the first centers of European colonization and tobacco production for the British Empire. Over the course of centuries, deforestation, agricultural and urban runoff and toxic industry caused the Anacostia to diminish until it became one of the nation’s most denuded river ecosystems.
But change is afoot.
River advocates and Washington DC, Prince Georges and Montgomery county governments are working together to restore this river, bringing hope to the Anacostia and the many people and wild species that live along or within its shores.
And not a moment too soon. This river has the potential to be a natural gem supporting improved quality of life, economic improvement and habitat for plants and animals of the region.
But expanding development in the watershed threatens to undo progress that has been made, and thwart significant restoration of watershed ecology. Prince George’s county, where much of the undeveloped watershed land lies, is growing and pressure is mounting for development–which if not done thoughtfully will set river restoration back indefinitely. Washington DC is looking at the future of several key pieces of Anacostia watershed land, the decisions that are made about these lands could provide for greater biodiversity and a healthier river, or sustain a status quo that is ecologically and socially unhealthy.
What happens here in the next five years will determine the future of this iconic river. Restoration and re-wilding, combined with smart development, public awareness, and incentives for protecting the Anacostia could help this watershed rebound, to become healthier than it has been since the founding of the nation’s capital.
A National Model
Counties and cities all across the country continually face the decision of whether to foster river-smart economic development, or traditional, polluting and degrading forms of cheap development and suburban sprawl. Ultimately, communities fare better economically when they protect and value rivers, and make healthy spaces for wild species, but it is not always the easy decision. Helping the community get behind the river will help transform this iconic and beleaguered river into a model for how to revitalize a land community through river restoration.
The Anacostia Project aims to help local non-profits and governments build a campaign of community support around the river, to document current efforts to restore the river, and encourage local leaders to recognize the great value of a healthy, vibrant Anacostia ecosystem.
About the Anacostia Project
The Anacostia Project is a long-term photo documentary project aimed at gathering imagery and other media to tell the story of the Anacostia River.
To date, several thousand images of wildlife, seasons, people, pollution and solutions have been gathered, along with video, audio and oral histories. These visual assets are being used for digital storytelling projects, exhibits, and a book, and they are being made available to Anacostia restoration advocates to aid them in telling the story of this river community.
River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia was released in fall 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. Learn more about River of Redemption and purchase a copy.
Working with global mapping company Esri, I have created a nine-part story map about the Anacostia River. The story takes visitors on a journey along the Anacostia from headwaters to confluence with the Potomac River in Washington DC. Access the story map here.
Anacostia Photo Database
Under a grant from the District Department of Energy and Environment I created a 200-image photo database available for free use by those who are actively working to restore the Anacostia River. To find out more, visit the photo database website.
The project has also resulted in two exhibits, one about the biodiversity of the river watershed, called Meet Your Anacostia Neighbors. This exhibit was funded by the Puffin Foundation and Prince Georges County Department of the Environment, and has traveled to many different spaces in the watershed but resides permanently in the county offices.The second exhibit depicts the diversity of plants, animals, people and problems that define the watershed. It has shown at the 39th Street Gallery in Brentwood, Maryland, a Mayoral candidate forum on the environment in Washington DC, a pop-up cafe and gallery in Hyattsville Maryland, the Vivid Solutions Gallery and several other locations in the Anacostia Watershed.
The Anacostia Project has also worked with the Anacostia Watershed Society on river outreach and education, through brochures and speaking engagements. Anacostia Project founder Krista Schlyer produced a story for National Geographic News about fishing on the river, and worked on a video project with a team of writers and photographers for the Our City Festival at the DC Public Library.
Starting in 2011 the Anacostia Project began working with the Daniel DiTondo Foundation to facilitate a free Art/River Camp for District of Columbia school kids, in which young people learn about the watershed and create watershed themed art projects, as well as taking a tour of the river with the Anacostia Watershed Society.
The foundation closed in 2019, but the Anacostia Project helped the foundation invest more than $100,000 in creation of a new art/river program within the Anacostia Watershed Society’s Rice Ranger program.
There is much more work to do, and the Anacostia Project will continue to look for opportunities to work with the dedicated group of river and wildlife advocates in the Washington DC region, to gain attention and action for the incredible and undervalued Anacostia River watershed.