Saving Washington’s River — and the World’s Oceans

In the Race for Oceans: D.C., Chemonics is bringing together its new nonprofit neighbors to create impact in the nation’s capital — and beyond By Lance Gould

As a child, Fidan Karimova went for a swim that would change the trajectory of her life.

“I went swimming in the Caspian Sea,” the native of Baku, Azerbaijan, recalls. “It was a lovely time — a great day. But when I came out of the water, there was black soot all over my body. That was from the oil.” The “oil” refers to the massive pollution in the Caspian from, among other sources, oil extraction and refineries. “At that point, I realized that that's not normal. It's definitely not something you want on a child's body.”

When her family moved to a Maryland suburb of Washington shortly thereafter, Fidan immediately drew comparisons between the Caspian and the devastating pollution in the Anacostia River: Half a billion gallons of raw sewage annually poured into the river from Washington’s antiquated and overwhelmed treatment system.

Not only were the Caspian and the Anacostia linked inextricably in her mind — a polluted sea and a river, both on the shores of a national capital city. But she became aware of the fact that all bodies of water are in some ways connected.

“There's only one water on this planet — whether it's ice, whether it's in a river, or whether it's an ocean,” says Fidan, now a Practice Leader for Global Sustainability at the nonprofit Water Environment Federation, which represents both water-quality professionals and member associations in almost 40 countries. “The water that is in a river eventually ends up in an ocean.”

As a life-long Washington resident, Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan knew something about the calamitous nature of the Anacostia River. When she was growing up here, there were public safety warnings issued on TV not to swim in it, as well as cautions from family and friends to steer clear of it.

But it wasn’t until, through a school program, she had an opportunity to study water samples from the Anacostia under a microscope that she started to understand the breadth of the issue. “That was where I learned that there are a lot of, well — a lot of gross things living in the Anacostia,” recalls Shukurat, now the Executive Director of Reading Partners DC, a nonprofit that stresses the importance of one-on-one tutoring to empower young readers to succeed. “And I was really concerned about people getting harmed by the organisms. But then, more importantly, this was a waterway in the city that folks didn't have access to, to be able to enjoy and interact with, because it was so filled with germs.”

Working on that water project not only sparked an interest in the sciences for young Shukurat, but also lit a desire in her to become a community activist, to fight for the neighborhoods of D.C. that have been historically neglected through systemic racism. Many of those neighborhoods are on the banks of the Anacostia.

Trey Sherard grew up in rural North Carolina near the coast — a self-proclaimed “saltwater boy.” The trained marine biologist came to Washington somewhat reluctantly, and found something quite unexpected: a green metropolis, with 7,800 acres of parkland — more than any other populous city in the United States. And he found a “blueway” through the greenway, to which he has now devoted his career: the Anacostia River.

As a Riverkeeper for the nonprofit Anacostia Riverkeeper, Trey has been leading tours of the 8.7-mile-long river for a decade — he never anticipated he’d stay in Washington longer than a year, but now he can’t tear himself away. “The only place I've ever seen wild turkeys is in Washington, D.C. — on the Anacostia.”

But in addition to the uncommon fauna and gorgeous greenery he sees on the river, he also sees a disturbing amount of marine plastic pollution. While much of the Anacostia’s raw sewage has been attended to — thanks to WEF member DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest facility in the world (which on average treats 300 million gallons of wastewater a day, and can handle up to a billion gallons daily) — the river is now choking in plastic.

The World Economic Forum notes that, by 2050, there will be more plastic pollution by weight in the oceans than fish. And as rivers connect to oceans, plastic in the Anacostia negatively impacts the globe.

Now Fidan, Shukurat, Trey, and their D.C.-based nonprofits have been invited to collaborate with Chemonics International, to clean up the Anacostia and to educate local youth about the importance of combating global marine plastic pollution.

Chemonics, which is about to move into its new headquarters in Washington’s Navy Yard — in Ward 6, a stone’s throw from the banks of the Anacostia — invited these three organizations to join it and its Denmark-based nonprofit partner UNLEASH in an event called Race for Oceans.

Race for Oceans is a movement started in Denmark by ultramarathon runner Signe Simonsen. The idea behind Race for Oceans is to have local “champions” stage events in different countries around the world, each of which will call attention to marine plastic pollution. Each Race for Oceans features three components: an athletic engagement, a plastic-pollution clean up, and an on-site educational interaction for young students about water systems.

“The Race for Oceans was really an opportunity for us to take a look at global movements around water pollution, and find out how we could contextualize that within the D.C. community,” says Lauren Behr, Senior Advisor, Scaled Impact through Innovation and Investment at Chemonics. “We’re leveraging that experience that we bring in environmental issues, water issues, and pairing that with a focus on education and youth engagement, and creating an event that was tailored to the needs of the D.C. area — but specifically around the Anacostia River, because Chemonics is opening up our new headquarters in the Navy Yard. And so, as we join this community, we want to understand the issues and we want to have impact.”

About 30 children from the Van Ness Elementary School, located in Ward 6, took part in the Chemonics-led Race for Oceans: D.C., pulling out 715 pounds of trash from the Anacostia.

But as important as removing close to half a ton of plastic from the river is the legacy of giving children that experiential learning opportunity that can change the trajectories of their lives, long after the Race for Oceans has concluded.

“We have no idea which student will be sparked by this and how that can lead to some sort of advocacy,” says Shukurat. ”Not only to address issues with the Anacostia, but maybe even other issues around water, like in Flint, Michigan. That is the value of including children in events like this.”

You might interest also