Documenting the River of Redemption: An update on the Anacostia Project

Sunset over the Anacostia River in Prince George's County, Maryland.
Sunset over the Anacostia River in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Story & photos by Krista Schlyer

In 2010, as part of the International League of Conservation Photographers’ Chesapeake Bay RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition), I found myself on the Anacostia River in Washington DC. The Anacostia is one of the most imperiled watersheds within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a sprawling eco-region spanning most of the Mid-Atlantic. The Anacostia is also my home watershed, where the water that drains off my house and yard ends up.

Prior to 2010 I had spent most of my working life documenting the US-Mexico borderlands, thousands of miles away from home. I was working there in hopes of protecting a future for the jaguars, ocelots, Sonoran pronghorn, birds, butterflies and bison of the region, which was and is under assault from a federal government intent on building a border wall.

But on my first day out on the Anacostia River in 2010, I came face to face with an important question that has shaped my work over the past 9 years: What about the wildlife of the Anacostia watershed?

I can honestly say I had never once considered this prior to that day — a fact that now astounds and embarrasses me. I hadn’t thought about cities — and especially my city, Washington DC — as being places that sustained any life but human life. I was so very wrong.

Deer along the Anacostia River near the confluence of the Northwest and Northeast branches.
Deer along the Anacostia River near the confluence of the Northwest and Northeast branches.

On that first morning on the river I saw osprey, bald eagle, egret, heron, turtle, fish, beaver, deer and many more, all somehow surviving in the wreck we human beings had made of their home. And almost immediately, I made a commitment that I was going to do whatever I could to help them and all the other creatures who might be able to live in this urban watershed, if we just gave them a little bit more of what they needed — more forest, cleaner water, more native plants, more space.

NANPA awarded me the 2016 Philip Hyde Conservation Grant to support this promise to the wildlife and people of the Anacostia land. This funding, along with funds from several other grant-making organizations, has allowed me to document this natural community and produce a suite of publications and projects that I hope will help Anacostia residents better understand and appreciate the river watershed.

From the Editor: Have an idea for your own grant-worthy project? Applications for this year’s Philip Hyde Conservation Grant and the Janie Moore Green Scholarship Grant are accepted through October 31, 2019. Click on the links for all the details and the application forms. These grant programs are managed by the NANPA Foundation.

The first project outcomes were exhibits that have moved around the watershed and landed in the permanent collections of the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and Prince George’s County Department of Environment, the two principal agencies responsible for the large majority of the Anacostia watershed.

A bald eagle on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.
A bald eagle on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.

Following that I began giving slideshow presentations on the river and created two major projects for DC’s environment agency. One was a 200-image database of photos that can be used for free by anyone working on river restoration. Use of the images has ranged from signage by the National Park Service (teaching visitors at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens about native mussels and the role they serve in water quality); to outreach and engagement materials by the Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and DOEE.

The second project was an interactive digital journey from the Anacostia’s headwaters to its confluence with the Potomac River. This story map, called River of Resilience, was a collaboration with the global mapping company Esri and has received more than 50,000 views since its release in spring 2018.

Great blue heron fishing in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Washington DC, 2012.
Great blue heron fishing in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Washington DC, 2012.

Last fall, the culmination of the Anacostia Project was released by Texas A&M University Press, a book called River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia. The book considers the watershed in the same fashion that Aldo Leopold looked at Sand County, Wisconsin in the 1940s; through the months of the year, as the seasons changed life upon the land for all creatures living upon it. (You can read excerpts from the book on my website.) The book also looks at human history and how it is intertwined with this river, one of the foundational rivers of the United States.

Tremendous changes lay ahead for the Anacostia River. Development of the watershed is proceeding at a rapid pace, and if it is not done wisely, Washington, DC, and Maryland will lose a once-in-a-lifetime chance to heal this river watershed in ways no one could have imagined just decades ago. It is my hope that River of Redemption, and the other work of the Anacostia Project will help inform those who are making decisions about that future, and inspire residents of the watershed to stand up and speak for the Anacostia and all her other creatures.

Thank you NANPA for helping me — the Hyde grant has changed the world, right down to my little corner in the Anacostia River watershed.

Krista Schlyer received NANPA’s 2016 Philip Hyde Conservation Grant. She is an award-winning photographer and writer focusing on conservation, biodiversity and public lands. She has worked throughout North America, from the arid borderlands of the American West and fire-forests of the Southeast, to the urban rivers of Washington DC. Schlyer is a Senior Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers and winner of the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, National Outdoor Book Award, and Vision Award from the North American Nature Photographers Association. Learn more about her at kristaschlyer.com/.