The Anacostia: River of Recovery

Natural History of the Anacostia Watershed


Rocks and tree stump placed in Sligo Creek prevent erosion, create habitat, and alter flow. The Anacostia River has its beginnings in dozens of small creeks and streams in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, where it flows through diverse ecological and geographic areas. The watershed extends into two physiographic provinces and three political jurisdictions, and contains both tidal and free flowing non-tidal sections.

There are three major drainages in the watershed: the Northwest Branch, the Northeast Branch, and the tidal drainage, which begins in the vicinity of Bladensburg at the confluence of the two branches. The tidal drainage area includes the tidal river and floodplain, and many small coastal plain streams that flow directly into the tidal river. Many of these streams are enclosed in stormwater management systems.

In Washington, D.C., pollutants enter the river via runoff from impervious surfaces. The tidal waters of the Anacostia flow about 8.4 miles in length from the confluence of the branches in Bladensburg to the Potomac River at Haines Point in Washington, D.C. From Haines Point, the Anacostia joins the Potomac for 108 miles until it empties into the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout, MD.

The Anacostia Watershed is approximately 170 square miles in size, 120 of which are located in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, with the remainder in the District of Columbia. In the two Maryland Counties alone, approximately 495,000 people have the potential to impact the Anacostia every day. More than 800,000 residents live in the busy metropolitan area of the watershed today, making it one of the most urbanized watersheds in the United States. Many people use the river for recreation.

Today, residential development is the single largest land use, covering more than 43 percent of the watershed; industry and manufacturing account for another 4 percent of land use, mainly in the District. Of the remaining 53 percent, approximately 31 percent is considered “undeveloped”, consisting primarily of forests and parkland.

Haines Point marks the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Of the 27,000 acres of forests Captain John Smith found in the watershed, roughly one-quarter remains today. The vast network of feeder streams and tributaries that protected water quality and provided wildlife habitat in the watershed has retained only about 20 to 30 percent of their total area in forest cover. Stream experts and hydrologists estimate that forest cover is adequate in only about 35 to 50 percent of the watershed’s stream miles.

Another significant blow to the watershed is the loss of tidal wetlands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that approximately 2,500 acres of tidal emergent wetlands have been destroyed along the Anacostia between Bladensburg and its confluence with the Potomac at Haines Point. The total area of remaining tidal wetlands comprises about 180 acres, constituting an overall loss of more than 90 percent of the wetlands found by Captain John Smith.

River of Recovery…what can I do?

Students investigate the river on a Living Classrooms Foundation research vessel. People are responsible for creating the problems that impact the Anacostia today. Cleared forests, poor farming practices, and urbanization are the results of people changing the landscape to meet their needs. For the last decade, people have created many solutions to restoring the Anacostia watershed to a more natural condition.

Citizen volunteers participating in stream clean-ups, water quality monitoring, tree planting and other restoration projects have made a difference in the health of the watershed. Large-scale projects such as stormwater retrofits, stream bank bio-engineering, and wetlands creation have helped to “undo” changes in the river’s ecosystem caused by people over the last century. Many millions of dollars have been spent on this progress, but there is still much to do.

Teachers learn about river at DNR - Forest Service workshop. The best way to help is to get involved with one of the many agencies and organizations that are working for the restoration of the watershed. These groups include large government agencies to grass-roots neighborhood groups. The following web addresses will provide information on the groups working together in this effort and suggest ways you can get involved:

    The Maryland DNR - Forest Service
    Maryland DNR TreeMendous Maryland
    www.anacostia.net The Anacostia Watershed Network
    www.bladensburg.com Town of Bladensburg
    www.saveourstreams.org Save our Streams
    www.mwcog.org Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
    www.anacostiariverkeeper.org
    www.porttowns.com/der/ Ports Towns home page – Prince George’s County Dept. of Environmental Resources
    www.anacostiaws.org Anacostia Watershed Society
    www.eopb.org Eyes of Paint Branch


Updated on February 06, 2002.

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