Monday, March 28, 2016

An Interview with Jim Foster, President of the Anacostia Watershed Society

Nathan: What makes the Anacostia River unique?

Jim: It’s the river that flows through the nation’s capital. It is certainly an urban river and has been the recipient of much abuse, like other rivers. What really sets it apart is the federal government’s influence and impact on this river compared to other rivers in the county. That’s really unique.

Nathan: Of all the work you’ve done to restore the river and the watershed, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

Jim: I think we’re most proud of raising the awareness of this river after generations of telling people, “Don’t go there, that river’s dirty.” We’ve worked really hard to reconnect people to the river and weave the river back into the fabric of the communities. Is it done? Heck no. Is it better than it was? Heck yes. Mission accomplished? No.

Nathan: One of the things that I deal with a lot as a Ward 8 resident and leader Committee to Restore Shepherd Parkway is illegal dumping. We spent a lot of time removing trash that other people have thrown, but I’ve yet to glean much insight into how we might change people’s mindset or behavior.

Jim: I have a very literal approach to that- no pun intended. The reality is that people take care of the space when they feel connected to it and they feel part of the community. The people who are doing the dumping are coming from somewhere else for the most part.The people that are doing the littering in their communities want their space to be clean, but they disassociate themselves from the particular place where they are littering.  

We are working hard to change some of that behavior: witness the bag fee and the polystyrene container ban in DC. We’ve been working this year on bottle deposit legislation in Maryland. It is really about behavior change: “Hey, I own this place, and I respect it.”

Home ownership is 27 percent east of the river and 75 percent west of the river. How do we change that dynamic so more people are invested in their communities and want to help take of them?

Nathan: I get the impression that Prince George’s County lags behind the District and Montgomery County when it comes to environment laws to benefit the watershed. Is that correct? If so, why do you think that is?

Jim: In many respects they do lag far behind. It was run a fiefdom for many years. There were ten families that kind of ran the place, and it was all about them and development.

Montgomery County has been a little bit more progressive in their approach to the environment, but they’ve also done a lot of damage upfront, so they have a long way to go.

What we are seeing in Prince George’s is a sea change in the leadership. County Executive Baker has really worked hard to change things. Can you do it in eight years after 400 years of abuse? No. But he has been able to bring some progressive leadership in: witness Adam Ortiz, director of the Department of the Environment.  

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