Photo by Ardyiii on Flickr.

The Anacostia River is widely called DC’s “forgotten river,” a term coined by Anacostia Watershed Society’s founding president, Robert Boone, to reflect the river’s second-class status in our nation’s capital city.

The Anacostia should be a community asset: a river safe for swimming and fishing, per the federal Clean Water Act. In many ways the Anacostia River is not forgotten anymore, but rather a well-kept secret for the recreational opportunities it does offer, including biking, paddling, and surprising beauty and solitude.

My organization, the Anacostia Watershed Society, has been working to improve the Anacostia for 20 years. We and the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association will discuss the river and its recreational future with local leaders and residents at a public forum this Saturday.

At the head of the river in Maryland, over a dozen crew teams from the region call Bladensburg Waterfront Park home, including University of Maryland, Catholic University, Elizabeth Seton High School, DeMatha Catholic High School, and Walter Johnson High School. You can even learn to row with the Washington Rowing School, rent a canoe or paddle boat from Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, or take a guided river tour with AWS.

This park is also the gateway to the Anacostia Tributary Trail System, a biker’s paradise of trails stretching up to Greenbelt and Wheaton that within 2 years will connect southward along the river to the existing Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in the District.

The Anacostia River has a rich history of recreational use.  Eastern Power Boat Club, founded in 1905, is the country’s first power boat club, and Seafarer’s Yacht Club, founded in 1945, is the oldest African-American yacht club on the east coast.  Seafarer’s has a long commitment to community service and the health of the river, starting the annual Anacostia River clean up that has grown into a major annual Earth Day event, and AWS is a proud partner.

Other members of the Historic Anacostia Boating Association are also along Boathouse Row (Water and M Streets SE), including District Yacht Club and Washington Yacht Club, as well as the Anacostia Community Boathouse, a home for rowers and recreational paddlers. 

AWS is a founding member of the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association, and with ACBA’s excellent new facilities at 1900 M Street SE, AWS has begun to increase our recreational paddling programs. In 2011, AWS “Paddle Nights” attracted several dozen people down to the river every 2 weeks and opened their eyes to the possibilities of a clean, healthy Anacostia River.

If you don’t know about something, it is hard to care about it. In short, recreation equals stewardship, and we believe that more citizens should come to know and love the Anacostia River.

In light of AWS activities to clean up the river, we are often asked if it is safe to recreate on the Anacostia River.  The answer is yes, if you are sensible about it. Don’t swim, don’t drink the water, and be careful about eating the fish. But please walk, bike, row, paddle, or simply look at and enjoy the river.

In order to share this information more widely, AWS and ACBA are hosting a River Health and Public Recreation Forum this Saturday, February 11, 9-11 am, at the First District Police Station, 101 M Street SW.

Councilmember Tommy Wells, Dr. Janet Phoenix of the DC Environmental Health Collaborative, Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland, Collin Burrell of the District Department of Environment, and Donal Barron of DC Water will give a brief panel presentation, followed by an audience Q&A. Topics will range from recreational safety to the risks posed by the river’s various pollution sources, including bacteria, stormwater, toxics, and trash.

Although we’ve still got a ways to go to reach our goal of a swimmable and fishable Anacostia River, it is already a community asset for those who know its charms. Come down to the river and learn for yourself what many locals already know: the Anacostia is an urban oasis, and could yet be a better one if we have the willpower to make it happen. This well-kept secret is really a hidden gem.