WASHINGTON – Masada Maeda looks out over the Anacostia River from the back of his 15-foot-long skiff. Along the banks and floating through the water are plastic cups, beer cans, Styrofoam and dozens of other types of trash. “It’s not as bad as it used to be,” said Maeda, who, in his work for the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society, has been sampling the river water since 2002.

The 8.6-mile river – one of the most polluted tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay – is undergoing a gradual transformation, aided by a major trash-removal program ramping up this year. District officials on Jan. 1 placed a 5-cent fee on plastic bags given out at stores selling groceries and alcohol to discourage their use. And jurisdictions surrounding the Anacostia drafted a plan calling for removal of more than a thousand pounds of trash from the river and its tributaries every day.

Though the goal is to eventually make the river fishable and swimmable, the efforts are also helping to lure development to the waterfront – including Nationals Park, which opened in 2008 – and The Yards, a 42-acre mixed-use development that will bring shopping, homes and offices to the riverfront. The Yards’ 5.5-acre park opened this week.

“People choose this area because they know the river is going to be cleaned up and see it as a tremendous asset,” said Michael Stevens, executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, created by city government to oversee development and marketing for more than 60 projects within the Near Southeast neighborhood along the river.

The improvements come after decades of degradation of the Anacostia by development in its watershed – the 176-square-mile area of land and tributaries that extend into Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The river has been plagued by raw sewage overflows during heavy rains, and oil and grease and other toxic runoff from city streets and parking lots.

“Most of the areas were developed without management, and now we have to go back and retrofit to bring it up to codes,” says Ken Yetman, the stream corridor assessor for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The region’s two major sewer utilities, D.C. Water and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, are pumping almost $3 billion into projects mandated by the District to curtail sewage overflows, including an 8-mile-long tunnel under the Anacostia to capture runoff that would normally go straight into the river. Renovations to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant are expected to be completed by 2014, but raw sewage overflows into the river during heavy rains could continue for a few years after that, officials say.

Federal and local governments are contributing to the river’s cleanup, with grants, taxes and fees going directly to the decades-long restoration effort. Environmental groups have long been active here, successfully suing city agencies to improve the water quality. “Aesthetically … this river is clearly getting better,” Maeda said.

In a conference room on the 11th floor of a New Jersey Avenue high-rise two blocks north of the Anacostia, sitting near a large-scale model of Near Southeast, Stevens exudes optimism. “We think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a brand new city on the river,” he said, of the Near Southeast community roughly bounded by South Capitol Street, Interstate-395 and I Street.

Much of the redevelopment of Near Southeast centers around the area’s primary tenant, the Washington Nationals, which moved into its new home across the street from the Anacostia in 2008.

The population of the area – which dropped by nearly 5,000 residents between 1950 and 2008, to 1,830 people, according to Census data – has suddenly begun to climb. It jumped nearly 73 percent, to 3,164, between 2008 and the second quarter of 2010, according to the D.C. Office of Planning.

In that short time, new grocery and drug stores, restaurants, condominium and apartment buildings and millions of feet of office space have all opened in the neighborhood. About 35,000 people now work there, Stevens said.

Claire Schaefer, deputy executive director of Capitol Riverfront, said the ballpark brings 2 million people a year to a neighborhood they may never otherwise have visited.

“Part of wanting to bring people down here is to reintroduce them to the river,” Schaefer said. “D.C. has a lot of river frontage but, for so long, you weren’t able to access it. “What the ballpark did was allow people to come down and see the Anacostia; maybe dip their toe in it. Once they start to care more, then you have a larger base of people that want to clean up the river.”

According to the Capitol Riverfront’s second-quarter projections released in July, the neighborhood has already seen $2.3 billion worth of development since 2000, with another $6 billion either under construction or planned for the future.

Akridge, a Washington-based real estate firm, has heavily invested in the area, specifically along the Half Street corridor that leads from the Navy Yard Metro station to Nationals Park. A new 196-room hotel, 50,000 square feet of retail space, 340 residential units, restaurants and bars are all part of the firm’s plan for Half Street.

“I think what you’re seeing is a belief that the river is and will become more and more of an asset to the neighborhood,” said David Tuchmann, a development manager for Akridge.

Having the river become an asset – but not necessarily a developed one – is something environmentalists have long fought for. Jim Dougherty, conservation chairman for the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club, has been active in other efforts to prevent construction projects along the river, including a proposed theme park on Kingman Island and a proposed extension of I-395 over the river. “The Anacostia is a poster child for environmental injustice,” Dougherty said. “Whenever the District wants to build a project, they put it there.

“You look at the Potomac and what do you see: the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and wild, green open space. But on the Anacostia, you have an eyesore like the Benning Road power plant.”

Anacostia Watershed Society leaders say new, planned development is better than what came before.

“The fact is this is an urban river, and much of the area is already developed,” said Brent Bolin, director of advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society. “Unless we are talking about tearing up Southeast and Southwest D.C. and reestablishing hundreds of acres of wetlands, we’re not going back to the original ecosystem.”

This story was produced by the News21 team at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and distributed by Capital News Service.