My Job: The Man Who Cleans D.C.’s Nastiest Water

Yes, politics are toxic, but the Anacostia River is even worse. He’s trying to get this fetid waterway swimmable in less than 10 years.


Most people spend rainy days indoors and bemoan the days when they have to go into the office on a sunny day. Masaya Maeda, a water quality specialist with the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) in Washington, D.C., happily does the opposite.

The nine-mile Anacostia River begins in Bladensburg, Maryland, and flows through D.C. before meeting up with the Potomac River to continue its path to the Atlantic Ocean. The port at Bladensburg used to be 40 feet deep and was written about by notables such as Captain John Smith as a place of wild abundance. Today, however, after years of deforestation and development, the watershed is predominantly urbanized, and that port runs just five feet deep. The river is plagued by toxic hotspots and an outdated combined sewage overflow system that dumps raw sewage and garbage into the river whenever there’s a heavy rain.

However, after long being deemed the “forgotten river,” the Anacostia is finally seeing progress on a local goal to have the river swimmable and fishable by 2025. This is thanks to people like Masaya who, instead of seeking shelter from the storm, heads into the rain to ensure trash traps he’s built along tributaries are functioning as intended.

His bio explains “in contrast to his AWS colleagues who engage in positive activities, like tree planting, wetland planting, and native species protection, Masaya is charged with a darker responsibility. He locates pollution, tracks it to its source, reports it to the proper authorities, and makes sure the issue is addressed.” Masaya spends his days boating along the waterway and getting into its depths. He shows how we can all incorporate adventure and the outdoors into our daily lives in a meaningful and impactful way—even if we live in a city.

If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asks what you do for work, what do you tell them?
My job is to clean up a river called the Anacostia River. I play my part in the challenging task. Isn’t it nice to get paid for doing something meaningful for all of us?

What is a typical day like for you?
My typical day is very different depending on the weather and day of the week. During a heavy rainfall event, I may decide to check if a flood-prone area is heavily flooded or not, or to see if our trash trap is okay. I may be maintaining the trap just before an intense precipitation. I may be taking water samples from the river if the day is scheduled for sampling, rain or shine. I have to be very punctual when I monitor the river to assess its health as accurately as possible. If it is a sunny day, I may be in the office to catch up with email, write reports, or work on submitting grant applications.

How does your job affect someone’s day?
Our work at AWS influences everyone at least locally. There may even be ripple effects nationally or internationally. I am just a part of the work, but I do believe my role is important and unique. I’m not a full-fledged activist working on the frontline. What I do is help others visualize the problem. Sometimes this includes photos, graphs, or diagrams that help activists, politicians, and decision makers understand the graveness of an issue.

A recent example is a ban on Styrofoam food containers. Through our trash traps, we collected a significant amount of reliable data on trash and found that approximately 20 percent of trash by volume in the river is Styrofoam. We know simply looking that we have a lot of Styrofoam floating in the river. However, the observation itself cannot persuade decision makers. But, when we get out there and quantify it, it’s a lot more persuasive.

With the help of volunteers, we piled up bags of trash sorted in different categories—beverage bottles and cans, Styrofoam, and “other”—and took photos of them with the volunteers who helped sort out the trash, and disseminated the photos. This way, it is very visible that bottles, cans, and Styrofoam are the largest components of the trash in the river. Photos from the trash traps before our sorting are also helpful. They are impressive symbols for people to see the magnitude of the problem. We showed photos of significant amounts of broken-down pieces of Styrofoam on the riverbank and explained how it’s impossible to pick up all grain-sized pieces.

Telling the story this way caused environmental activists and decision makers to move their minds toward banning Styrofoam food containers. Now, in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and D.C. [all regions that compose the Anacostia River’s watershed], Styrofoam food containers are banned. Our work has affected residents in a positive way by protecting everyone’s environment.

What was your first job in the outdoor industry?
I was a public official in Japan working at a laboratory, in a regulatory division, and at a sewage treatment plant. All of those experiences were useful for my future work at AWS and were a good mixture of outdoor and indoor tasks. At the regulatory division, there were many applications to install equipment in factories and septic systems in individual properties. My job was to review the applications and give permits if they were OK. I also inspected factories for their discharge, industrial waste, and emission gases. Based on the test results, I gave notices to the factories to address problems.

How does someone get your job?
I joined AWS as an international intern and did my best on the tasks I was given. I also learned to work with, and come to enjoy, the differences between my bosses and myself. When I started my work with AWS, my bosses were not engineers, so we had different ways of seeing things. However, I worked to incorporate a lot of the ideas they gave to me. They are the leaders who meet and talk with the general public and decision makers; so, I need to make products that they feel comfortable using. This teamwork has been really effective, and is important for maintaining a job like mine.

What are the pros of your job?
I can do something meaningful and still lead my life. My workplace is very nice for maintaining a good balance between a meaningful job and time spent with family.

What are the cons?
It is difficult to imagine what I will be doing even two years from now. Our organization works primarily on grants. So, after the grant ends, what will I do next?

Some of our great work is also not the most measurable, which makes it hard to build a case for obtaining more funding. For example, we filed a lawsuit against D.C. Water and obtained a consent decree with them to ensure they do needed tasks—both large, such as installing metro-sized tunnels to temporarily store sewage during overflow events until it can get pumped up to a treatment plant, and basic, such as conducting the regular maintenance they are supposed to do. D.C. Water officials themselves are not bad overall. However, an organization like us needs to point out their wrongdoings, so that they can improve and do their best. The problem for us, though, is that this fairly basic piece of our job isn’t as measurable, and thus harder to raise funds for.

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