THE first thing you notice is the oppressive smell of sewage. Just a few miles outside the District of Columbia, this once-busy tobacco port - where commercial ships docked - is now only navigable by canoe.
Choking on silt buildup from urban runoff, the Anacostia River is the second most-endangered river in the United States, according to a report released last week by American Rivers, a leading river conservation organization in Washington.
Even though concern over the country's polluted waters for the last 30 years has resulted in cleaner waters across the board, the Anacostia, a major river that runs through Washington and drains into the Potomac River and subsequently Chesapeake Bay, ``typifies the still-degraded state of America's urban rivers,'' the report states.
Along the Anacostia River's Bladensburg marina, bushes grow between the docks, mud rises out of the yellowed waters, and garbage litters the banks. Further along the river, where toxic chemicals, untreated sewage, and other poisons are being flushed, people are paving parking lots, roads, and malls.
``The Bladensburg marina can no longer be used for recreation because of the silt - silt that has built up over the last 300 years and now measures 15 feet deep,'' said Carol Browner, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who, together with Sens. Paul Sarbanes (D) of Maryland and Max Baucus (D) of Montana and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, visited the marina last week, Earth Week.
``The marina is symbolic of two things: that America's waters are in trouble, and that we have the power to solve the problem.''
The findings of the latest EPA report, the ``National Water Quality Inventory,'' show that since 1992, almost 40 percent of the nation's rivers, lakes, and streams have become too polluted to use for fishing, swimming, boating, or other recreational uses. Agricultural runoff - which affects 72 percent of impaired rivers -
and municipal and urban runoff were cited as the leading sources of water-pollution problems in the United States.
`We must protect our water'
``We must recognize that 80 percent of the earth's surface is made up of water,'' said Ms. Browner. ``To protect our earth, we must protect our water.''
Maryland's legislature sponsored a bill that would appropriate $1.6 million for the Anacostia's restoration. It has not yet been determined how the money will be spent. The Bladensburg marina has been closed for years and is unlikely to be reopened, said Jim Connolly of the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee.
The Anacostia's problems stem largely from past farming practices and urban and suburban development. As early as the 1890s, in the years following the Civil War, siltation problems caused by poor agricultural practices and new cultivation machinery were compounded by the sewage from a growing population around the Anacostia.
In the early 1870s, almost 80 miles of sewage and storm-water sewers had been constructed to carry waste water for river dilution. By 1880, 10 million gallons of raw sewage were being dumped daily into the Anacostia.
``Back then, the Anacostia River was 40 feet deep and one mile wide,'' said Robert Boone, executive director and founder of the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee. ``Now it's about five feet deep in some places, and even less in others, and about 50 yards wide.''
According to Mr. Boone, the growth of Washington and the federal government after World War I accelerated suburban development and caused serious flooding along the Anacostia - and storm-water runoff, particularly after World War II, became, and continues to be, the biggest threat to the river. A 1952 survey revealed that the only living organisms on the river bottom were sewage worms.
Though efforts on the state and local levels since the late 1970s have helped restore aquatic life to the river, the problem of contaminated fish still remains.
For the past five years, state agencies and Maryland-based environmental groups have been sending out warnings to residents to limit their consumption of what they catch.
``Despite these efforts, I think it's fair to say that the Anacostia has been D.C.'s most neglected river,'' said one environmental activist.
``It could be because the Anacostia runs through very poor communities in the district that don't attract as many tourists as a river that runs through the center of the city would.''
Yet, over the years, the Anacostia has had a strong ``constituency'' working to restore its waters. Groups have identified storm-water runoff sites, reduced pollutant loads in some of the river's tributaries, and helped restore the diversity of the river's aquatic life.
Still, environmental groups have a long way to go before the river is out of danger.
Browner, who took a fishing trip on the Anacostia last week, tossed a net into the river and pulled up a potato chip bag, a soda can, and a catfish with a tumor.
``We need to change our laws to gain greater protection of the water we drink and the water we use for recreation, business, and sustaining our world,'' she said last week. ``We call on Congress to pass the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.''
Focus on neglected waterways
This year, Congress will be considering bills that would toughen the Clean Water Act and create an urban river-restoration program to help revitalize the waters of the Anacostia and other neglected waterways all across the nation.
The Clean Water Act, which regulates pollution in rivers, lakes, and other public water bodies, will be up for consideration later this spring.
The possibilities of passing a reauthorized Clean Water Act by the end of the year ``are excellent,'' Senator Baucus said last week. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates the sources of drinking water, shortly.