Crew steers clear of direct contact with Anacostia

By Illana Berger and Erica Spaeth

Students on Churchill Crew club spend about 10 hours per week rowing on the Anacostia River. While the river hosts several other crew teams and clubs, such as Wootton and Elizabeth Seton High Schools, it is also home to harmful substances.

According to a District of Columbia Department of the Environment (DDOE) plan to create a fishable and swimmable Anacostia River by 2032, the river is contaminated with untreated sewage and high levels of pathogens that may cause human illnesses. The river also contains high levels of arsenic, lead, copper and zinc as well as accumulations of oil, grease and other chemicals that makes it hard for aquatic life to survive.

“The water is fairly opaque, so one never really knows what’s lurking just below the surface,” varsity boys crew coach Ryan Ludick said.

CHS crew members are careful to never have direct contact with the water, at least not on purpose.

“We never go in the water,” senior Erika Fusco said. “Once the coach fell in and scurried to get out of there.”

The foul smell and unsettling color of the river may not be appealing, but rowing on the Anacostia can often be an adventure.

According to Fusco, one time the team saw a dead body with police surrounding it floating in the water.

While the river may not be an ideal location, Anacostia Watershed Society policy associate Lori Baranoff reassures that as long as students take proper safety precautions, rowing should not be a hazard to their health.

“We believe it is safe for people to recreate on the river with the exception of swimming,” Baranoff said. “There are certain safety practices that should be taken to reduce any potential risks though—if possible, wear clothing that covers much of the body and take a shower after you have been out on the water to remove substances from water contact.”

The Anacostia has been seeing some improvements. The DDOE’s plan to create a fishable swimmable river by 2032 is an example of an ongoing initiative that focuses on the restoration of the waterfront and the cleanliness of the water itself.

The DDOE plans to reduce pathogens and sewage in the watershed by taking steps to prevent sewage overflows, installing devices to store the sewage and by calculating the amount of pollutants the Anacostia can receive while still meeting water quality standards.

The Anacostia Watershed Society has many volunteer opportunities for anyone who wants to help clean up the waterfront. Rowers are beginning to notice that clean-up efforts such as these are showing promising results.

“Many other coaches that have been on the river much longer than I have said that it is getting better,” Ludick said. “Wildlife is present now including many species of birds, otters and one beaver that I know of. Their return is evidence that although the river is still quite polluted, it is improving.”