Interview with Trey Sherard (Anacostia Riverkeeper Organization)

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Interviewer: Tilly Castaneda

Interviewee: Trey Sherard

  1. How would you describe the Anacostia River?

Right now, the Anacostia River is still very polluted, facing 5 big challenges: sediment, trash, toxic chemicals, sewage, and stormwater. However, almost all these challenges not only have plans in place now, but action on the ground towards accomplishing those plans. The 1.5 billion gallons (used to be 2 Billion annually) of untreated sewage and stormwater that DC Water overflows into the river every year should cease upon completion of the Clean Rivers tunnel project ~March 2018, in less than two years. The Anacostia River has a trash TMDL (second in the nation) and that has helped push jurisdictions to work harder on trash issues. This includes the plastic bag fee in DC and Montgomery County (Prince George’s County has asked several times for permission to implement the necessary excise fee/tax and has been denied every time by the MD legislature), as well the new expanded polystyrene foam bans that too effect in DC and Montgomery County January 1 2016 and which will take effect in Prince George’s County this June (check me, may be July). Stormwater is the watershed problem, being a pollutant itself due to its volume but also being the primary cause of sewage overflows as well a leading cause of trash and sediment choking the river. Stormwater has begun to be addressed with smarter development rules and with the implementation of subsidies and other incentives to encourage implementation of low impact design/green infrastructure stormwater best management practices. Toxics are tied to sediment in that although much of the toxics found in the river date back years and even a century or more, they are held here largely by the volume of fine sediment introduced to the river-most of the toxic chemicals do not associate strongly with water but have very strong physical attractions to sediments, especially fine-grained ones. As such, sedimentation creates an extra sink for toxics in an already slow river. The District has voluntarily taken a lead in assessing the state of toxics in the river by setting aside capital funding to perform a remedial investigation of the the sediment in the entire tidal Anacostia River from Hains Point to Bladensburg MD, including the Washington Ship’s Channel. This report is actually open for public comment from ~3 weeks ago through May 2nd. (Again, check my dates). There is, in fact, a public meeting tonight 6-8 around the corner at the Pumphouse on the river just in front of Nats Park. This report will be finalized upon DOEE’s public responses to the comments received. There may or may not be further opportunity for public comment on that report depending on the drafting process. That report will then educate a feasibility study to examine every option from doing nothing to completely dredging the river and everything in between according to cost, efficacy in reducing risk to human and ecological health, etc.

Separate from the problems and solutions, the Anacostia River is an 8.4 mile long river which drains 176 square miles of Washington DC, Montgomery County MD, and Prince George’s County MD. 7 of those main stem river miles run through DC, but DC only contributes 1/6 of the watershed. 1/3 is in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County contains ½ the watershed. Most of the riverfront property is own by the federal and district governments, making them potentially responsible parties in its cleanup. National Park Service also owns the entire river bottom. It is a heavily developed watershed but with much relatively well preserved waterfront and the upper half of the river is almost entirely natural along the shorelines.

  1. Can you explain me in a little more details about the history of Anacostia Riverkeeper organization?

Anacostia Riverkeeper (ARK) is actually celebrating 15 years on the river this year. We work to preserve and restore the Anacostia River for all who live, work, and play in its watershed, and to advocate for a healthy river for all its communities. We do this through volunteer trash cleanups, advocacy for policies to cleanup and protect the river, introducing residents to catch-and-release fishing, installing stormwater best management practices at houses of faith and other community centers, commenting on the reports which will control the future remediation of toxics and other problems along the river, working with Gallaudet to monitor the water quality of the river, introducing residents to the river itself through free education boat tours funded by the plastic bag fee via DOEE, managing three Bandalong litter traps on District waters, and by constantly expanding the community base of individuals and groups who meet, learn about, and begin to take ownership in their river.

  1. What are the most difficult parts of analyzing Anacostia River watershed? Why?

Right now, one of the most difficult issues that comes immediately to mind is the set of human health effects on watershed communities: for instance we know from our report 5 years ago that no less than 17,000 people eat fish from the Anacostia River, and we know that many people in the watershed, especially East of the river, suffer from higher rates of cancer and learning disability than the national average, but it has not yet been demonstrated that this is the result in part or in whole of the toxins we know to exist in the river sediment and in many of the fish caught here. We will find out more about the toxins present through DOEE’s RI report, but we already know generally that carcinogens and developmental toxins are present in the sediment and fish, and we know that there higher rates, but those same communities are also subject to many other factors also known to increase rates of cancer and disabilities. There is not yet the sure epidemiology to separate how much of those increased rates are due to this or that contaminant, from the river or otherwise.

  1. You guys deploy green infrastructure to improve water quality, is that correct? If so, what percent of the Anacostia River’s water quality is improved by green infrastructure from last year or this year?

This is enough hard number to assign. Was this year dryer or wetter? Are there other concurrent or downstream practices that (would) have also benefitted water quality? We have certainly deployed more green infrastructure, as have the District and both county governments, as well as other nonprofit and for profit entities. It would take a very detailed, multi-year study to properly assess this question but the short answer is we’ve implemented more treated acreage and so the water quality should absolutely be improving, vis a vis this single source of pollution.

 

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