April 16, 2020
When associating D.C. with a color, what comes to mind? Probably red: the color of the icons on the District’s flag, which also adorns the Capitals, Nationals and Wizards in some shade or fashion. Or perhaps you think of navy blue: a color, like red, that is so intimately tied with the national flag. Maybe it’s some other color: gray because of the Brutalist architecture, brown because of the D.C.’s Chocolate City moniker, or burgundy and gold for the football diehards. Another acceptable answer is green.
In October 2019, WalletHub published a study that revealed D.C. as the No. 4 ranked green city in America, to no surprise. The city is first among large cities in LEED-certified projects and square footage and first among large cities in Energy Star certified buildings and square footage, on a per capita basis, according to the city’s website. The District has also made restoring the Anacostia River to swimmable by 2030 a priority and promoted an initiative to move 80 percent of all waste away from incineration and landfills.
“We’re in a very nonprofit rich environment in D.C.,” says Trey Sherard, outreach coordinator and staff biologist with the Anacostia Riverkeeper.
The Anacostia Riverkeeper is part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance and seeks to protect and restore the Anacostia River for all those who work, live and play near the watershed. This involves volunteer work, deploying green infrastructure and providing educational resources.
According to its website, the main goal is to restore the river as a fishable and swimmable resource for the people in the DMV. You can technically fish there now, although you’d be facing potential health risks if you ate the fish. Swimming is not allowed.
“When we say fishable, we mean it’s safe to eat what you’re catching without worrying about how many ounces is safe,” Sherard says. “We can’t just work on conservation for conservation’s sake; we want to conserve it for the fish, birds, turtles and all the people who use it. ”
Successes for the Riverkeeper include managing waste via large trash traps. Sherard says there are four in the District, with more to come. Shrinking the amount of refuse, specifically plastic which accounts for 60 percent of the waste caught in said traps, is a huge focal point for all organizations on the river. Another on the front lines, fighting for zero waste as a whole is the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club.
“Waste reduction efforts include meeting with the city council and looking at efficient ways to reduce waste and how to meet the city’s goals,” says Catherine Plume, the chapter chair. “Right now we’re at about 20-25 percent on our diversion rate. That was pre-Covid, so how are we going to get to 80 percent by 2032? We’ve had some resistance to the ideas, and that can be a source of frustration. [But] the District and the mayor recognize these issues.”
The Sierra Club is a national organization dating back to 1892, with a focus on large scale preservation on a national and local level. With 3.8 million volunteers nationwide, the four primary campaigns in D.C. include: clean energy, clean water, smart growth and the aforementioned zero waste. Anyone can get involved and volunteer with the committees, which is active in the city at events, protests and in efforts to alter policy.
“The focus is on D.C. issues,” she says. “ There are tons of opportunities to participate with any of our four committees, we do things in river tributary clean ups, we do boat trips on the Anacostia and our zero waste committee helps organizers at a lot of events to help sort waste into compost and recycle.”
Clean(er) water is also a focus of the Anacostia Watershed Society, which has began reintroducing mussels into the river for purification in 2015. Through surveys to understand which specific mussel communities could thrive in the river’s habitat, the team at the society began propagating them into the Anacostia.
“We started the first propagation project in August 2018, where we put them in floating baskets,” says Jorge A. Bogantes Montero, natural resources specialist. “We had eight different sites, including Kingman Lake. The idea is to introduce 35,000 over the length of the project.”
One adult mussel can filter 10-20 gallons of water per day, which has significant benefits to the river’s biofiltration, Montero says. Because of the positive effect these mussels are having on the Anacostia so far, and the promise of more shortly, the Watershed Society is pushing a goal of swimmability by 2025, five years ahead of the city’s goal of 2030.
“We’re being a little more ambitious, because we do monitoring every year and we’ve seen a constant increase in the conditions in terms of clarity,” Montero says. “The Anacostia River tunnels really changed the game, because it’s already improving the river system a lot.”
With an improved river and better waste management, places like the city’s Kingman Island suddenly become go-to stops for those yearning fresh air. Currently, the nonprofit Living Classrooms uses the island as an exploratory ecosystem for local children to learn about their environments. While educating and spurring adults to get involved in eco-friendly initiatives is imperative to the policy of today, sparking curiosity in children will prove fruitful in the future when hot button issues like climate change become even more present.
“I feel a lot of pressure to work toward making sure people have opportunities to connect with nature and make sure that’s equitable,” says Lee Cain, director of Kingman Island. “We have to make sure the next generation are understanding of our connection as humans with the environment.”
The island also stages the Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival, a day-long series of concerts, which doubles as a fundraiser for the setting’s yearlong programming. Since 2016, with the help of Sierra Club volunteers, the event has operated under a zero waste effort.
“We were composting 80-90 percent of the waste,” Cain says of last year’s success. “At the end of the festival last year, 9,000 people came and we only had five bags of trash that we picked up on the island the next day.”
Cain lives and breathes anything that involves conservation and can easily rattle off the history of Kingman Island, from its time in the ‘20s and ‘30s as an aid to make the river more navigable for ships to its designation as a State Conservation Area in 2018. The island isn’t exclusive to children’s benefits, as people can enjoy the running and biking trails or volunteer programs.
Living Classrooms also offers “green job” training through its ranger program, which helps out-of-work adults discover entry-level jobs in the green sector via hands on experience. Participants spend half their time doing maintenance, landscaping and construction projects, and the other half in the classroom.
“Rangers do the work of being on the island and doing maintenance work, learn habitat restoration and learn hospitality,” Cain says.
Volunteers will have to wait to help out in any hands-on capacity due to the citywide social distancing requirements spurred by Covid-19.
All organizations and nonprofits are feeling the effects of the coronavirus. Kingman Island decided to cancel this year’s festival and has transitioned its educational resources to online. Anacostia Riverkeeper has transitioned a majority of their Earth Day programming to its social media channels and the Watershed Society has postponed their Earth Day cleanup until October 3. For the Sierra Club, all committee meetings have transitioned to Zoom.
Despite the uncertainty on when society’s wheels will start turning again, all the organizations charged with conserving our environment haven’t stopped checking water levels or doing walkthroughs onsite. If D.C. is to remain green, and continue as a leader in the field, then the city must continue to work with the people who care most about all initiatives eco-friendly.
“I think the city as a whole is pointed in the right direction,” Plume says. “We have the nation’s most ambitious renewable bill. But we have to figure out how to ensure economic recovery for residents and small businesses while incorporating the elements we’ve worked hard to achieve and keep moving forward. ”