Monday, February 2, 2009

Anacostia: The Death and Life of an American River / John R. Wennersten -- Baltimore: Chesapeake Book Co., 2008.

When people think of rivers and Washington D.C., they naturally think of the Potomac. However, when the city was first planned, its primary waterfront was to be on the Anacostia River, or what was once called the "East Branch." Unfortunately for the Anacostia, the wealthier and established citizens of Georgetown persuaded developers to direct the face of the city toward the Potomac, thus starting a long history of neglect and degradation of the Anacostia.

John Wennersten's Anacostia is both a natural and political history of the Anacostia River. It's natural history made its headwaters an ocean-going port until silt clogged the port at Bladensburg in 1850 and with the growth of Washington D.C. during. After the Civil War, poor water management resulted in extreme contamination and epidemics of small pox, cholera, and malaria which killed thousands. By 1873, it (and Rock Creek) had become little more than open sewers which it remained until the Clean Water Act was passed one hundred years later in 1972.

While the Clean Water Act brought some progress toward cleaning the river, one can still not safely swim or fish in the Anacostia (goals set by the Act.) It was not until 1988 that genuine progress began when the Anacostia Watershed Society was formed. The Society was (and is) a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the watershed. Along with other environmental partners, the Society has forced the EPA to address the dreadful state of the river. While much remains to be done, the last third of Anacostia is an inspiring testament to the determination of environmentalists to take back our natural birthright from the self-interested developers and despoilers of the land.

Among the most interesting aspects of Anacostia is how Wennersten connects the lives of the people of Washington D.C. to the Anacostia. Time and again, the rich and powerful (wittingly or not) displaced the poor and vulnerable from prime real estate and forced them to move to what is known as "Anacostia" or the east side of the Anacostia River inside D.C. Wennersten's sympathetic account of the mistreatment of people would not be news to many people in D.C., but deserves much wider currency.

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