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Behind the Lens: Cleaning Up the Anacostia River, One Boat at a Time

Photos and musings from our photographer.

skimmer boat
DC Water employee Ka Shad pilots a skimmer boat on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.
(David Kidd)
Its 7 a.m. on a sunny summer Wednesday, and boat operator Ka Shad is pulling away from a dock on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. He’s not going fishing or taking a pleasure cruise. An employee of DC Water, the District of Columbia’s water and sewer authority, Shad is at the controls of a skimmer boat, an ungainly-looking, 50-foot-long, blue-and-white craft whose sole purpose is to scoop up the trash, branches and debris that float down the river every day. At this early hour, the only other people on the water are rowing teams gliding upstream. 

DC Water has been using skimmer boats since 1992, removing 300-500 tons of trash from District of Columbia waterways every year since. In service for 15 years and looking neglected, DC Water’s oldest skimmer has outlived its usefulness and is for sale. The newest members of the fleet are Flotsam and Jetsam, having been named in a social media contest two years ago. Their operators refer to them simply as 33 and 34. With a joystick in each hand, Shad is piloting 33 today. 

The amount of debris in the river changes with the seasons and the weather. Springtime and heavy rain mean more unwanted stuff in the water and more work for the skimmers. The area experienced record rainfall last year and with it a record amount of debris fished from the river. It wasn’t just tree parts, bottles and bags that were scooped up. Last year Shad plucked a port-a-potty from the water. His favorite find of all? The head from a T Rex costume. “Luckily, nobody was in it,” he says. 

Shad is one of three skimmer operators who rotate shifts on the water. He spends two hours on the boat in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, two days in a row. The third day is spent dockside tending to the equipment and moving debris-laden dumpsters in and out of position, ready for pickup. “It definitely beats being stuck in the office all day,” says the six-year Naval reservist. “At least you get some scenery.”

Back on shore, Shad returns to the dock with a light load of tree debris and food containers. Sitting under a nearby shade tree, a fisherman has three poles propped up with lines in the water. He’s already caught one catfish. “I’ve lived in the area for 30 years, and I can see a big improvement,” he says, looking out over the water. “They say this river will be safe to swim in by next year. But I’m going to wait a little longer.”

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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