Whether we realize it or not the Anacostia River is important to everyone in the state of Maryland. If you have ever spent a day at Wheaton Regional Park, fished on the Potomac River, or enjoyed seafood from the Chesapeake Bay, then the Ancostia River should be important to you. Mention of the Anacostia River often brings to mind images of a murky urban waterway that flows through Washington, D.C. and empties into the Potomac River. But it is actually a diverse ecosystem that stretches across two counties and encompasses a variety of communities. Communities as different as Olney, Hyattsville, Silver Spring, College Park and Seat Pleasant all have one thing in common - their relationship with the Anacostia River.
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The Anacostia River actually begins as small streams and creeks in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, Maryland. These headwaters are surrounded by the scenic beauty of rural farms, woodlots, meadows, and wetlands. About half of these tributaries lie entirely in the Coastal Plain, with the remainder originating in the Piedmont Plateau and descending into the Coastal Plain. The transition zone from Piedmont to Coastal Plain is called the fall line and is characterized by rapids and waterfalls.
Once in the Coastal Plain the Anacostia tributaries meander through suburban communities and urban commercial areas. Thousands of people enjoy bike paths and parks along these streams without realizing any relationship to the Anacostia River. Just below Bladensburg the tributaries flow into the tidal section of the Anacostia River which eventually converges with the Potomac River. Few people throughout this region understand their connection with the Anacostia River or the impact that they can have on the river and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay has received a great deal of attention over the last few years. The Bay and the aquatic life that depend on it have struggled with declining water quality. Sedimentation and nutrient overloads have been major problems. Sediment clouds the water and inhibits aquatic plants from receiving sunlight. High concentrations of nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers, treatment plants, and urban runoff cause an increase in algae blooms. The algae deprives the submerged aquatic vegetation of sunlight, and when the algae dies, dissolved oxygen is taken out of the water during the decomposition process. The result is a decline in submerged aquatic vegetation which, under normal circumstances, filters sediment and creates oxygen. This problem and other problems the Chesapeake Bay is experiencing can be traced back to the tributaries, their watersheds, and the people who live there.
What is a Watershed?
For people to realize how they effect the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay, they must have an understanding of the word watershed. A watershed is the land area that drains to a specific body of water. Every water system, from the neighborhood creek to the Chesapeake Bay, has an associated land area, or watershed, from which it receives water. Water travels as either surface runoff or as ground water toward the lowest spot in the watershed, usually a creek or stream. The people and activities within this area have a direct impact on the characteristics of the stream and water quality.
More information on watersheds
The Anacostia watershed is about 170 square miles in area, approximately 120 of which are located in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, with the remainder in the District of Columbia. In these two Maryland counties there are about 495,000 people who have the potential to impact the Anacostia every day. The watershed is characterized by urban/suburban communities, commercial centers and industrial parks. Construction and development are moving into the few rural areas left in the watershed. The challenge is to preserve the Anacostia watershed and its natural resources for future generations.
Although some Bay tributaries are strongly influenced by agricultural practices, the greatest stress on the Anacostia is from urbanization. The urbanization of the watershed has caused the water quality to decline in Anacostia tributaries. Construction sites, evident throughout the watershed, often leave bare soil exposed and susceptible to erosion into nearby creeks. With construction comes the loss of trees and the benefits they provide for the environment.
Another impact of urbanization is the expansion of impermeable surfaces. Roof tops, parking lots, street, and driveways all prevent water from seeping into the ground and slowly being released into streams through ground water reserves. Instead, water runs off these impermeable surfaces very rapidly, scouring and eroding stream banks and transporting oil, grime, and debris from streets and parking lots into the open stream. This rapid movement of water also affects the water table. During heavy rains, streams exhibit an unusually high water level while during dry times water levels may be extremely low. This erratic water flow can be very detrimental to aquatic life and the structure of the stream itself. This is in contrast to the more moderate water levels experienced when water is allowed to soak into the ground and filter into streams gradually. Unfortunately, expanding urbanization throughout the Anacostia watershed is causing more tributaries to exhibit the extreme water levels rather than themore natural, moderate flow.
One of the most potentially harmful aspects of urbanization in the Anacostia watershed may also be the most important for protecting it - the people. People seldom realize how their activities can influence the watershed. Common practices like applying pesticides and fertilizers to lawns and gardens, washing cars, and changing oil all have the potential to deposit harmful substances into Anacostia tributaries, adversely affecting water quality and aquatic life. Being aware of these impacts and getting involved in individual and community activities such as stream clean-ups, recycling (oil, aluminum, plastics, etc.), tree plantings, and conscientious trash disposal are the first steps people can take toward improving water quality in the Anacostia River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Urbanization and growth are inevitable in the Anacostia watershed because it is such a great place in which to work and raise a family. But as we enjoy such fine living we must not ignore nature and the impacts we have on the living resources with which we share the environment.
What Can We Do?
Planting trees along tributaries is one of the best ways people can help improve water quality in the Anacostia watershed. Trees can form a "buffer zone" of forested cover and provide a variety of benefits to streams and local communities.
In addition to their beauty and aesthetic appeal, trees also increase property values, keep communities cool, use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.
The litter layer (leaves, twigs, etc.) of a forest slows surface water flow to reduce its erosive capability and acts like a sponge to filter sediment and nutrients before they can reach the stream.
Tree roots help maintain the channel width and stream structure by holding stream banks in place and deterring soil erosion.
Forested buffer zones along streams provide food and habitat for a diversity of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife and offer people a variety of recreational opportunities.
The shade provided by trees keeps water temperatures cool, allowing aquatic species to survive and discouraging algae blooms.
Forests and forest buffers can be managed for economic return through timber harvesting without having an adverse effect on the benefits mentioned above.
Well managed forests are the best natural filter system for delivering clean, cool water to bay tributaries. Establishing managed forest buffer zones along tributaries is one of the most important steps toward improving water quality in the Anacostia watershed and throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.
You can help! See if your school is located in the Anacostia Watershed. If so plan on partnering with Maryland DNR to coordinate clean ups or other activities that will restore the Anacostia to its former glory.
For More Information
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service, through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, has assigned a forester to work within the Anacostia watershed. Establishment of forest buffers and maintenance of existing buffers to improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat in stream corridors are major goals. With a unified effort the water quality in the Anacostia and in the Chesapeake Bay can be restored for everyone to enjoy.
Increased community awareness of water quality issues in the Anacostia watershed is needed to promote public involvement. For more information on planting trees or other community activities please contact:
Anacostia Watershed Foresters
Maryland DNR Forest Service
P.O. Box 116
West Bowie, MD 20719-0116
The facilities and services of the Department of Natural Resources are available to all without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, national origin or physical or mental disability.
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