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Forget 'Swimming in the Potomac,' Let's Learn from the Anacostia

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

News surfaced in the Tribune on Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is calling on the city to clean up the Chicago River to the point of making it not only safe for boats but for swimmers as well.  Mayor Daley had a simple retort to the feds: "Go Swim in the Potomac."

Where the Feds won't swim: DC's Anacostia River before the recent cleanup. Photo Courtesy of the Anacostia Watershed Society.

My sympathies are with the Mayor on this one.  The city has made great strides in improving not just the river but the land surrounding it.  They continue to work every day, and have plans in place with the help of CMAP's Waterway Management guidance.  Whether or not the EPA passed this statement along to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, Chicago was going to keep on working toward the Chicago River becoming "swimmable." (There's a separate issue here about the necessity of making the river truly "swimmable."  I'd happily go kayaking along the river if I knew it was safe to occasionally fall overboard to cool myself off.  But I have a feeling that when it comes to swimming in natural waters, Lake Michigan does the trick for most Chicagoans.)

But let's take the Mayor's retort for more than the glib sound bite that it is.

Contrary to popular belief, Washington, DC actually features 2 rivers: the Potomac and the Anacostia.  While the more famous Potomac (which forms the border with Northern Virginia) is used for paddleboats, recreational kayaks, and competitive rowing, there's no one swimming in it.  And if anyone ever tried to swim in it, they'd be sure not to find themselves on the other side of Haines Point in the Anacostia--one of the most polluted rivers in the country.

Here's the difference: DC finally woke up to this atrocity in the last year and decided to do something about it.  Specifically, they instituted a simple 5 cent fee on plastic bags used at grocery stores and for take-out food, and devoted the revenue solely to cleaning up the Anacostia.  (Note that free re-usable bags were handed out by grocery stores themselves and other groups to local low-income residents so that the brunt of this fee would not fall on the poorest residents.)  Raising over $150,000 in the first month of the fee alone, it has put the district on track to clean it up in a decade's time--as opposed to a generation.

Now, I'm not convinced that a similar "bag fee" at grocery stores would be the right way to go about cleaning up the Chicago River.  The problem here is not trash polluting the river, but instead wastewater and other sewage runoff.  I would suggest a similar 5 cent per bottle fee on bottled water--but the city already has us paying that one in the name of the plastic-petroleum connection.  So: any other ideas for a way to raise some extra revenue fairly to follow the EPA's mandate?  Or are we ok with slow improvement and possibly running afoul of the feds?



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