Northwest Branch, Anacostia River experience pollution problems


March 6, 2004, midnight | By Katherine Zhang | 16 years, 10 months ago

Area organizations are working to fight pollution in metropolitan rivers


The Northwest Branch, a large tributary that flows from northern Montgomery County to meet the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., replaced Sligo Creek as Blair's backyard stream after the move to Four Corners. Unfortunately, the Northwest Branch is one of the major contributors to the pollution in the Anacostia River, which, according to a recent Washington Post article, could be one of the most polluted rivers in the nation. Several area organizations are working to alleviate the problem, and among the solutions is a cleanup day scheduled for April 3.

Spanning 19 miles and covering a subwatershed of approximately 26,812 acres, the Northwest Branch is "one of two major free-flowing tributaries to the tidal Anacostia River," according to an environmental study prepared by the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG). The Northwest Branch is among the 28 percent of Montgomery County streams rated as being in fair condition by the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection and is among the tributaries that are contributing to pollution in the Anacostia River.

Sources of Pollution

Pollution in the Anacostia River comes from a variety of sources. According to Ted Graham, Water Resources Program Director of the Council of Governments, one "extra special" issue that plagues the District is the problem of combined sewer overflows, caused by D.C.'s antiquated sewer system, which carries both sewage and storm river runoff in one pipe. "When it rains, the sewers get overwhelmed, and [sewage] overflows into the Anacostia River," Graham said, adding that the cost of fixing the problem is about $1.2 billion. The sewers spill two to three billion gallons of overflow into the Anacostia River every year, according to an article from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Graham said that another 14 percent of the problem comes from leaking sewers.

The sewage adds both bacteria and organic materials to the river, which decompose and "use up all the oxygen so the critters die," he said, explaining that dissolved oxygen levels are one of the main measures of a healthy water body. "You like to have high dissolved oxygen levels," he said.

Furthermore, animal waste, carried into streams by stormwater runoff, is another major source of bacteria. Graham described the problem of animal waste as "analogous to the problem of combined sewer overflows, [but] instead of human waste it's animal waste."

Road runoff presents another problem. "The oil and grease gets picked up in a rainstorm," Graham said. "That [oil and grease] can carry things that are dangerous to the rivers."

The article from the Natural Resources Defense Council attributed 75 to 90 percent of the pollution in the Anacostia River to stormwater runoff.

Storm runoff also causes erosion, which wears away stream banks and destroys habitats in the streams.

Finally, trash is another problem for the Anacostia River and its tributaries. According to Graham, a study from a few years ago showed that "the most frequently encountered trash were foam cups from Seven-Eleven." Beer bottles and shopping carts are often found near streams and rivers as well.

Maryland Streams

In Montgomery County, "stream erosion and sedimentation remain the dominant impacts on county stream habitat conditions and aquatic life," according to the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection's 2003 Countywide Stream Protection Strategy report. In addition, the report stated that the county's "most severely impaired streams" were found in down-county areas, where "development at urban and suburban densities occurred…years before stormwater controls were required to help mitigate impacts of accompanying increases in peak stormwater runoff flows and associated pollutant concentrations."

Erosion from urbanization is among the problems that afflict the Northwest Branch, said Heather Phipps, acting Vice President and Treasurer of the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch.

A recent Washington Post article reported that the majority of pollution in the Anacostia River comes from its tributaries in Maryland. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) told the Washington Post that Maryland contributes to about 62 percent of the organic waste, "including sewage, discarded food and engine oil," in the Anacostia River.

Josh Ungar, Program Manager of the Anacostia Watershed Society, was not surprised at Maryland's role in the pollution in the Anacostia River. "Two-thirds of the watershed is in Maryland, so it makes perfect sense," he stated.

Cancerous Fish

Toxic waste from automobiles was one of the pollutants that has had an effect on the organisms living in the rivers, according to another Post article. The article reported that a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 50 to 68 percent of mature brown bullhead catfish collected from the Anacostia River in 2001 had liver tumors. Another 13 to 23 percent suffered from skin tumors.

According to Ungar, catfish is a "keystone species," used as an indicator of river pollution levels.

The Post article stated that scientists conducting the study associated the liver tumors with DNA changes commonly caused by pollutants from vehicle emissions. A river with 5 percent of fish having liver tumors is considered "highly contaminated," and the study indicates that the Anacostia may be among the most polluted rivers in the nation.

Fighting Pollution

Currently, various organizations and citizens groups are working to solve the problem of pollution in the Anacostia River and its tributaries.

The Anacostia Watershed Society, which according to its website is a "non-profit environmental organization that is working to protect and restore the Anacostia River and its watershed," focuses primarily on the areas of restoration, education and advocacy.

Restoration includes activities such as river cleanup, tree planning, wetland plantings and fish restoration programs, said Ungar. Members of the organization also go to schools and churches to speak about pollution and the Anacostia River. "We also do advocacy…that might be a lawsuit…against [the] Washington area sewer society for not doing what they're supposed to do," Ungar described.

In addition, the environmental organization Earthjustice has recently filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, maintaining that pollution limits, called total maximum daily loads, set by the EPA were "too lenient" and allowed "violation of water quality standards" in the Anacostia River. Earthjustice is suing the EPA over the total maximum daily loads concerning biochemical oxygen demand and total suspended solids, according to the organization's spring 2004 newsletter.

The Neighbors of the Northwest Branch, established in fall 2003 by the Council of Governments, is another group concerned with the pollution in local streams and rivers. Currently, the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch is still working on developing as an organization and receiving support from citizens. "We're trying to get members involved," Phipps said.

Later, the group will take part in clean up efforts, bank stabilization projects and more.

The Neighbors of the Northwest Branch's first project is participation in a cleanup day on April 3, said Phipps. Members have registered for three sites: Burnt Mills and Old Randolph Road in Montgomery County and the Northwest Branch Trail in Prince George's County. Participants will pick up trash, recyclables and debris in and around the stream. The Neighbors of the Northwest Branch is looking for volunteers to help with the cleanup effort, Phipps said.

The group is also planning a tree-planting project for the near future.

Past projects by other organizations have been extremely successful. According to Graham, the Wheaton Branch Project recently improved the conditions in Sligo Creek. Participants built structures to prevent erosion, rebuilt habitats and reintroduced fish species. In 1990, only two species of fish were able to survive in Sligo Creek, said Graham. "Today there are 11 species present," he continued. "This is a pretty dramatic turnaround."

Volunteers interested in participating in the cleanup day on April 3 should contact Heather Phipps at (202) 529-2007.



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Katherine Zhang. Katherine Zhang likes French baguettes, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, bookmarks, fresh boxes of rosin, Brad Meltzer novels, and of course, "JAG." In her free time, Katherine enjoys knitting, playing the violin, and reading - especially legal thrillers and books about people in faraway places and long-ago times. … More »

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