Splash: Celebrating milestones towards a swimmable Anacostia

Anacostia Riverkeeper

Anacostia Riverkeeper

Did you know that kids used to splash around in the Anacostia River in the summer? Today, this urban waterway that runs through the heart of DC is perceived as dirty and unhealthy. Despite the environmental issues still facing the Anacostia River, water quality has drastically improved over the past few decades. We are as close as we have ever been to bringing back a swimmable Anacostia. In celebration of these water quality milestones, Anacostia Riverkeeper will be hosting the first permitted swim event in the river in over 50 years!

Why can’t we swim in the Anacostia River now?

Since 1971, swimming or wading in the Anacostia River and other District waters has been illegal due to safety concerns around water quality. 

The primary water quality concern for swimming and other recreation is bacteria, which can pose health risks to those who come in contact with the water. For the Anacostia River, this is mainly tied to DC’s sewers. Much of DC’s sewer system, built before 1900, is a combined sewer system (CSS) that mixes stormwater and sewage. Normally this does not pose an issue, but during heavy rain events the mixture of stormwater and sewage overflows into the Anacostia River. With an ever-growing population and stronger storms due to climate change, an average of two billion gallons of sewage overflowed into the Anacostia annually before 2018. That’s a lot of sewage!

Is water quality getting better?

Yes! Through infrastructure improvements like the CleanRivers tunnels implemented by DC Water, sewage overflows into the Anacostia River have drastically reduced. The Anacostia River Tunnel came online in 2018 and has since reduced sewage overflows into the river by 90%. The Northeast Boundary Tunnel is set to go online later this year, and is estimated to bring that reduction up to 98%.

Anacostia Riverkeeper’s water quality monitoring on the river has tracked this progress, finding low bacteria levels most of the time at certain sites. In 2022, monitoring sites at Kingman Island, Buzzard Point, and Washington Channel passed recreational water quality standards over 90% of the time. Other sites like National Arboretum, Anacostia Park, and Yards Park also show promising results, with passing bacteria levels over 50% of the time. These trends have continued for the 2023 monitoring season so far.

2022 E. coli single sample results for the Anacostia River.

Why is it important to have a swimmable river?

Access to abundant, healthy spaces for outdoor recreation is vital for the wellbeing of our communities. In an urban environment like DC, it is especially important to have access to natural water resources. With rising temperatures due to climate change and the urban heat island effect, having areas to cool down on a hot summer day is critical. Splash pads and swimming pools can offer this, but a whole river freely available to use is the self-sustaining environment we need. 

Before the swim ban, restricted access to swimming pools led many residents of the predominantly Black and low-income communities around the Anacostia River to swim in the river. Today, we see many people enjoying the river in other ways: power boating, kayaking, rowing, fishing, and even wading in some areas. Our communities should be able to do all these activities – and swim – freely & safely in all areas of the Anacostia.

Splash 2023: A Glimpse Into Tomorrow

With the improvements in water quality we’ve witnessed in the past several decades, and especially since 2018, the swim ban could be lifted in the next few years! 

For now, the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) has implemented an amendment to the swim ban to allow permitted swim events in District waters. Through this process, Anacostia Riverkeeper is hosting the first sanctioned swimming event – Splash – in the Anacostia River in over 50 years!

Join us on July 8th to make a splash towards a swimmable Anacostia! Splash will provide a rare chance for residents to swim in and reconnect with the river. Contingent on water quality results the week prior, participants will be able to swim briefly in the river off the Kingman Island Dock next to the Benning Road Bridge during a designated 20-minute time slot from 1-3pm. The backup date in case of cancellation is July 22nd. You can register on Anacostia Riverkeeper’s Eventbrite for one of our limited slots and make history with us this summer! 

Please note that swimming is still illegal in District waters and you may only swim during a sanctioned swim event like Splash with a permit from DOEE. Anacostia Riverkeeper does not encourage swimming in the river outside of these events.

Learn more about Anacostia Riverkeeper’s water quality monitoring and other programs connecting people to the river and working to make the Anacostia swimmable for all!