The Anacostia: River of Recovery


The Anaquash…
Teachers investigate aquatic life at DNR - FS workshop. Throughout history, the Anacostia Watershed has been home to a diverse group of people because of its strategic location and abundance of natural resources. At the time of Captain John Smith’s first visit to the area in the early 17th century, the Nanchotank Indians lived at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in what is now Washington, D.C. In fact, the name “Anacostia” is derived from the Indian word “anaquash” meaning a village trading center.

Smith found a river teeming with American and hickory shad, white and yellow perch, sunfish, catfish and herring. Forests surrounding the river were mature and wildlife was abundant, providing the Indians with all that they needed. The river’s proximity to the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay provided these early inhabitants with rich natural resources, and navigable waters in which to trade and transport them.

Smith’s visit and subsequent mapping of the area opened the door for European settlement on the river that he referred to as the “Eastern Branch.” These dramatic changes to the landscape and inhabitants came in several waves over the next four centuries, leaving the “anaquash” with little resemblance to the river that Smith surveyed in 1608.

Bladensburg and the Port Towns…
Bladensburg Marina Park. Established as a town in 1742, Bladensburg began as one of the major seaports in the colonies. Named in honor of William Bladen, an oxford University graduate and Secretary of the Province in 1695. His son, Thomas Bladen, was Governor of Maryland from 1742 to 1747 and was the first native of Maryland to hold this office. The Indian Queen Tavern, which still stands today, was the stopping point of many early leaders of our country. The Battle of Bladensburg was fought here in 1814.

Agriculture, the watershed changes forever…
Forested riverbank. From the time of European settlement to the Civil War, the forested Anacostia watershed was cleared, acre-by-acre, for agriculture. The thriving port towns of Bladensburg, Riverdale, and Hyattsville became victims of their own success; the farming of tobacco, corn, and cotton that drove the port’s economy eventually would make the river too shallow for ships due to erosion and silt from adjacent farmland.

Soil erosion from upland agricultural fields was transported by strong tidal flows to downstream areas. By 1850, the thriving Port of Bladensburg was rendered useless to shipping. Nearly the entire watershed was under cultivation by 1860. Forests that may have provided valuable riparian buffers to the rivers and tributaries were cleared as well. Extensive sedimentation of the river continued for the latter half of the century, choking wetlands and creating extensive mud flats along the banks of the tidal river.

Plans were drafted in 1890 to “reclaim” the mud flats and in 1902, Congress approved funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a portion of the tidal Anacostia up to the Anacostia Navy Yard and a smaller channel upriver to the District line.

Urbanization of the Watershed; the landscape is changed forever…

Industry along the river - sand and gravel operation. As the economic importance of the Port Towns faded in the nineteenth century because of loss of commerce, sedimentation from agriculture, a rapidly expanding Nation’s Capital and surrounding suburbs began to occupy the farms and fields of the watershed. Since the late nineteenth century, many of the environmental and ecological problems of the Anacostia can be attributed to urbanization, sprawl, and changes in land use patterns.

Forests and wetlands continued to be lost, this time not to the plow, but to the bulldozer and cement mixer. As communities and industry sprang up in the counties surrounding D.C., many of the river’s streams and tributaries had their flows altered through channelization and stormwater management practices. In urban areas, discharges of stormwater, sewer overflow and industrial waste created both point and non-point sources of pollution from impervious asphalt and concrete surfaces.

Today, street-level storm drains that flush debris into the river during heavy rains are one of the biggest sources of “floatable” trash and pollution in the watershed. Water runs off these impermeable surfaces very rapidly, scouring and eroding stream banks and altering the natural water flow. Chemicals, fertilizers, and oils enter the river and its tributaries as they are washed off rooftops, streets and parking lots. Each tide brings a new collection of chemicals and floating debris to the river’s ecosystem, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

River of Recovery…Through Partnerships
In Washington, D.C., pollutants enter the river via runoff from impervious surfaces. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources works with a variety of agencies, organizations, environmental and citizen’s groups to work toward the recovery of the Anacostia watershed. The first efforts to restore the watershed began nearly twenty years ago. Since that time, many organizations and individuals have contributed significant resources toward re-establishing and restoring as much of the original ecosystem as possible.

Formal cooperation between government agencies came with the signing of the 1987 Anacostia Watershed Agreement and the formation of the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee (AWRC), a group consisting of the State of Maryland, District of Columbia, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Park Service.

Sligo Creek flows through a highly developed area in Montgomery and P.G. Counties The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments provides administrative, policy and technical support for the Committee, and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin assists in the areas of living resources and citizen education and outreach.

In 1996, the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee was formed
The establishment of forest buffers and greenspaces is one of the most effective and least expensive ways to improve water quality, provide wildlife habitat, and moderate water temperatures critical to stream ecosystems.


Updated on February 06, 2002.

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