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Elevation Q&A: Jorge Bogantes Montero, Anacostia protector

"It is clear the river is not the forgotten river it used to be," says Anacostia Watershed Society natural resources specialist Jorge Bogantes Montero

Not many people know the Anacostia the way that Jorge Bogantes Montero does. As a natural resources specialist with the Anacostia Watershed Society, Montero is aware of the places where legacy pollutants form a troubled mix of dirty water.  But he has also found places along the shores where wild persimmon and pawpaw fruits can still be found dangling from the limbs of native trees each fall. 
It is said that when Captain John Smith arrived here in the early 1600s he could dip a frying pan into the water and pull it out full of fish. Over the centuries since that time, the river has been highly disrupted by human disturbance and activity

Locations which were tidal wetlands in the 1700s were surrounded by berms and filled in during the 1800s. In other places, sea walls were built to keep back flood waters in the early twentieth century, forever changing the river's hydrology while industrial plants, utilities and manufacturing firms often dumped their waste along the banks.

For twenty-five years, the Anacostia Watershed Society has been working to clean up the imperiled urban river. We sat down with Montero to ask him what it is like to work each day with his hands and feet in the mud of a river in recovery.

What is an average day like for you?
From March to November I spend about 80% of my time out in the field. The best, most exciting times are when I get to go to the "backwoods" of D.C.

The Anacostia was very disrupted by the building of all of the city infrastructure, but it still is a very interesting ecosystem. You can see a lot of birds and waterfowl, and in the fall and winter you can see a lot of red foxes. During one of its studies, the District Department of the Environment staff even trapped a gray fox there.
"Sometimes you have to teach them the basics of things like how to use a shovel."
Sometimes we head out to one of our sites like Kenilworth Gardens or Kingman Marsh. We try to educate the public about our mission and our goals and let them get "hands-on" there in the mud. We lead them in planting different species like pickerel weed, wild rice, arrow arum, lizards' tail, and many other native emergent herbaceous plants. 

A lot of our volunteers are urban folks, so sometimes you have to teach them the basics of things like how to use a shovel. A lot of them are from communities near the river, but when they come to the volunteer event it is their first time experiencing the river and its wetlands. Many people don't know we have bald eagles, beavers, and muskrats here, so when they come to our volunteer events or our recreational events like paddling, they don't know we have this great ecosystem in our urban area. It is an eye-opener.

What  are the biggest challenges for the river?
We are in an urban watershed, there's more than a million people living here. With a growing population, there's growing development, and sometimes developers don't do the right soil erosion controls, so there's a lot of sediment pollution. There's also a lot of fecal contamination due to sewage leaks.  
"A lot of the places we are planting aren't going to be emerging wetlands, they are going to be covered."

When we do phragmites (invasive species) removal or wetland restoration, we also see a lot of trash.  It is really sad to go and see all these bottles and Styrofoam pieces in the marshes. 

We've also got an even bigger challenge coming with climate change. It's expected that the sea level will rise and the tidal Anacostia will rise 4 to 6 millimeters every year, which adds up to about a foot in a hundred years. A lot of the places we are planting aren't going to be emerging wetlands, they are going to be covered. 

How has your background informed your work?
I moved here from Costa Rica in 2002 to get married to my girlfriend who was originally from North Carolina.  Before that, I worked on the site of a former banana farm near a big river. In some areas we planted trees and everything thrived.  In other areas they had removed the topsoil and in many places there was just the mineral soil, and clay.  We tried to build biological corridors for the three species of monkeys. 

That was my first taste of biological restoration. I was like, "Wow, I love this!" It was the whole idea of recovering and bringing back places that have been degraded by humans into some functional ecosystem. It might not necessarily fit in the romantic ideal of bringing it back to pre-colonial times, which is impossible, but we can make them functional ecosystems for wildlife and provide other ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, clean air, clean water and such. I really loved it. 

When I came here to AWS it was the perfect opportunity to explore that world of ecological restoration even further in this urban area. 
"Sometimes it is easier dealing with wildlife than people!"

Here at AWS we are still learning about ways to do outreach to the Latino community. Sometimes it is easier said than done.  It requires knowledge, or sometimes a bit of sociology, it is not as easy—sometimes it is easier dealing with wildlife than people! We've been translating English signs into Spanish. For advertised events we now are translating documents and fliers. Its becoming part of our work culture. Some neighborhoods are more than 95% Latino. It is very critical for us to engage this new sector, this new demographic. I have a pretty good understanding of both cultures, and that puts me in a good position to help. 

It is clear the river is not the forgotten river it used to be. There are more eyes, from society, from governments, from companies, and this is a good time for the river, I think.

Read more articles by Alison Gillespie.

Alison Gillespie writes about urban environmental issues for a variety of publications nationwide.  She is also the author of Hives in the City, a nonfiction book about beekeepers working to keep bees alive in the cities of the Mid-Atlantic US.
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