The Keeper of D.C.’s Forgotten River

Solomon and her students are trying to reverse the damage and restore the health of the Anacostia River.

April 20, 2016

The Anacostia River flows through southern Maryland and our nation’s capital before joining the Potomac River to drift past George Washington’s historic home at Mount Vernon. Decades of abuse have left the tributary toxic with sewage and urban runoff. But one AAUW alumna and her students are trying to reverse the damage and restore the health of the Anacostia.

Caroline Solomon, a biologist and professor at Gallaudet University, earned an AAUW 2005–06 American Fellowship, which she used to study how well marine microbes such as algae and bacteria use urea, a form of nitrogen. The study was particularly important since urea must be maintained at a perfect balance in bodies of water for plant and animal life to get the nutrients they need. Solomon credits the AAUW fellowship with allowing her the opportunity to pursue this research and write her dissertation.

It was as a teenager that Solomon first became interested in the study of biological oceanography. “My parents rented a house on a creek near Annapolis, Maryland, when I was in high school, while my father was a visiting professor at the Naval Academy,” Solomon, who is deaf, writes in an e-mail interview. “There was one summer where we were not allowed to swim in the creek [because it was heavily polluted], so I vowed that I would do something about it.” Since then, Solomon has dedicated her career to repairing the environment, focusing primarily on Washington, D.C.’s “forgotten river,” the Anacostia.

Solomon leads efforts to plan, implement, and plant rain gardens to reduce the amount of stormwater that spills into the Anacostia. The river’s urban location makes it particularly susceptible to pollution. When a big storm occurs, large volumes of runoff flush waste into the river, threatening entire ecosystems. Solomon and her students plant rain gardens — vegetation that helps filter litter and toxins from the river. She also actively monitors the river’s health by testing for oxygen, salinity, and chlorophyll.

For Solomon, the greatest issue affecting the Anacostia River is “understanding how land use [by humans] influences … the health of the river.” For those in and around the nation’s capital who want to help rebuild the watershed, she suggests planting more rain gardens and helping with efforts like the Earth Day Initiative and Anacostia River cleanup.

Solomon and her students have been helping rebuild their river for four years. As a group, they hope to help guide policy about land use around the Anacostia. However, what Solomon states is most important to her in terms of her work is ensuring that “deaf people (myself and my students) are contributing to society by gathering needed data that will help guide decisions that will affect a large population that live in D.C. and the Anacostia watershed.”


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