Community members can participate in the first ever "Anacostia River Splash" swim event at Kingman Island on July 8. (Cleveland Nelson/The Washington Informer)
Community members can participate in the first ever "Anacostia River Splash" swim event at Kingman Island on July 8. (Cleveland Nelson/The Washington Informer)

In celebration of major successes in river cleanup efforts, community members can join Anacostia Riverkeeper for the first-ever “Anacostia River Splash” swim event at Kingman Island on July 8. The organization, which monitors water quality all along the river, has found that sites at Kingman Island, Buzzard Point and Washington Channel all meet the standard for safe swimming more than 90% of the time

The event marks a major milestone for the river: it’s the first time the city plans to grant a permit for a swim event in the Anacostia since 1971, when D.C. outlawed fishing and swimming in both the Anacostia and the Potomac. 

“This is something that hasn’t really been done before — in most people’s recent memory, they never have known anyone who just goes swimming in the Anacostia,” said Glenn Hall, special projects assistant for Anacostia Riverkeeper. “It’s symbolic… it’s the first sign of a shift.” 

Over the last two centuries, the Anacostia River has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most polluted urban rivers. The District’s rapid growth — combined with a healthy dose of environmental racism — made the Anacostia a dumping ground for toxic industrial waste, trash pollution and overflows from the District’s combined sewage and stormwater system. 

But after decades of concentrated activism, the Anacostia River has shown major improvements in water quality. Sewage overflows into the river have decreased by 90% since 2018, when the first main phase of the Clean Rivers Project — a massive court-ordered initiative that came out of an early-2000s lawsuit — opened up a huge tunnel to hold sewage. The second phase, set to come online later this year, is expected to bring that up to a 98% reduction. 

“For the adjacent communities, especially Anacostia proper, east of the river, I want people to notice stuff is actually happening on the river in terms of cleanup,” Hall said. “Things are getting better.”

Still, Hall, like many D.C. residents, expressed some reluctance about taking the leap. Even though he’s confident in the water quality monitoring process — he’s helped with the testing before — Hall said it’s hard to forget all the trash he’s seen in the river during cleanup efforts. That’s included things like dog poop bags and condoms amongst huge amounts of plastic waste. 

“It’s safe… I get the science, I know that I can do it,” Hall said. “It’s about changing my perspective on the river itself.” 

Anacostia Riverkeeper Trey Sherard said it is important to note that the July 8 event is the only time and place people can legally take a dip in the Anacostia for now. Sherard conducted a water quality test at the Kingman Island site on Wednesday, which will determine, in part, whether the Department of Energy and Environment grants the final permit for the event. In addition to a “passing” result on the test, the site will only be officially deemed safe to swim if there are no sewer overflows, which can happen during extremely heavy rain, in the days before the event. 

The event’s 100 or so free tickets, which Anacostia Riverkeeper released in several waves, sold out within an hour, Sherard said.

Hall already enjoys kayaking on the Anacostia, and said he would probably go for a swim “in a few years.” He said he wants more people, especially in communities closest to the river, to have access to recreational activities and the benefits of connecting with the natural space. 

“I love to recreate on the water, just not in this new way — yet,” he said.

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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