Safe to Swim or Fish in the Anacostia River?

Dead fish washed up on a bank of the Anacostia

The federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, stated the goal of returning all of the nation’s waterways to fishable and swimmable status by July 1, 1983. We have clearly missed that goal. Clean water is a right of all people, and the Clean Water Act is an excellent tool for achieving this goal.  But unless citizens speak out for clean water, it is easy for public officials to allow the pollution of our waterways to continue.

The Good News

The Anacostia River is safe for non-contact recreation and is a haven for paddlers, rowers, boaters, and fishermen. AWS has a robust Recreation Program that takes people of all ages out canoeing and kayaking on the Anacostia. The northern stretch of the Anacostia mainstem is bordered exclusively by parkland and is a beautiful place for quiet recreation, full of fish, turtles, and birds beyond counting – including bald eagles. Soon hikers and bikers will be able to access this portion of the river when Maryland and DC finish construction on a trail connection project, resulting in a full Anacostia trail from the Potomac to our uppermost tributaries.


The Bad News

Unfortunately, the Anacostia River is not safe for swimming. DC law prohibits swimming in any river in the District. Testing by AWS consistently demonstrates violation of water quality standards and bacteria levels in the river; our reports can be found here. The river is particularly unsafe to swim in 24-48 hours after a rain.

It is also not safe to eat certain fish from the Anacostia River, particularly carp, eel, and striped bass (rockfish). DC and Maryland both have issued fish consumption advisories for the Anacostia. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies show that approximately one-third of the brown bullhead catfish develop cancerous lesions or sores (this is significantly less than findings from the previous study). We encourage licensed fishermen to enjoy the river, but to practice catch and release rather than eating the fish or sharing it with others.

A recent study of fishermen on the Anacostia River shows that many people do not heed the consumption advisories, and share their catch extensively in the community. For more information about the study, click here.


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