Laying the Groundwork: Reclaiming D.C.’s “Forgotten River”
By Ed Stierli, Chesapeake Field Representative
Imagine having a beautiful river in your backyard, but being afraid to enjoy it.
The Anacostia has a bad reputation in Maryland and Washington, D.C., as one of the nation’s most endangered rivers. Suffering from heavy pollution and a lack of interest, some locals have dubbed the Anacostia the “forgotten river.” Thankfully, community advocates are helping to turn things around by transforming this urban watershed from a dumping ground to a vibrant green space, inspiring youth in the process.
Dennis Chestnut, a community leader and the executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC (GWARDC), is at the forefront of the transformation.
“These are more than just parks. These are places where we can come together for community-based programming, skill and workforce training, and educate residents about low-impact development,” said Dennis, a lifelong Ward 7 resident who grew up a short walk from the Watts Branch tributary.
Despite the widely held belief that the polluted waterway is a place to avoid, groups like Groundwork Anacostia are engaging a new generation of stewards to enjoy the river and work with nearby national parks to help restore it.
Since 2007, Groundwork Anacostia’s Green Team of young stewards has maintained the Bandalong Litter Trap, a floating litter collection device that prevents pollution at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. The youth have also coordinated community tree plantings, led cleanups at Kenilworth Park, and promoted hikes and outdoor activities in national parks as a part of the healthy community initiative with the National Park Service.
Students from four local high schools participate in service-learning projects and career-focused work while restoring the Anacostia and protecting parks. A recent project involved improving the Fort Mahan Trail Connector by installing a new, safer trail surface, planting trees, and building bio-retention areas to reduce polluted runoff. Fort Mahan is part of a historic group of national park forts known as the Civil War Defenses of Washington, and the trail now brings a new generation of explorers through the heart of this urban neighborhood.
“They have really become stewards,” said Dennis proudly of the Green Team. “They have woken up and discovered the impact of the trash in the river and the poor condition of fish and wildlife.”
Dennis knows that this is just the beginning.
“These students are passionate and stay actively involved. In the spring, they begin mentoring middle school students, and when they graduate, many stay engaged as Green Team young adult leaders.”
This bright spot for conservation engagement and community involvement has not gone unnoticed. Last month, the Department of the Interior awarded Groundwork Anacostia’s parent organization, Groundwork USA, a Partners in Conservation Award, recognizing its conservation achievements and successful support for and collaboration with the national park sites known as National Capital Parks-East.
“We are very excited about the award,” said Dennis. “But we are also excited about the year ahead.”
The challenges are great, but Groundwork Anacostia will continue working with the National Park Service to bring new people to the park while inspiring future stewards. NPCA is also joining Groundwork Anacostia to expand public water access for recreational and educational activities near Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
“Next year we’ll be growing the projects we have been working on, including a new one-acre community park that will serve as a gateway to the river,” Dennis said. “We are in a place to make great things happen and continue the community’s transformation.”
To learn more about Groundwork Anacostia, visit groundworkdc.org.