Anacostia: A Nation's River

By Dorcas Coleman
Bridge over the Anacostia River Likening the Anacostia River to a character from a melodramatic Southern yarn, it begins its journey as an exuberant, happy-go-lucky child, babbling along, skipping and rolling over rocks and boulders, slowing to survey with youthful wonder its more remote and undisturbed stretches, meandering over shallow gravel shoals, eddying in small distracted spirals and playfully lapping at the restrictions imposed by parental riverbanks. As it matures, its character changes, disfigured by densely populated suburban centers, the victim of tons of garbage generated on the land surrounding it - old tires, empty beer cans, an occasional engine block, perhaps - things forgotten, discarded and of no further use. Sandy banks are soon replaced by disciplinarian, concrete walls entrusted to keep the brash upstart in line. It continues to widen and slow as with age and a quiet sadness falls over the wizened old river as it flows through painful, searing urban blight. In its final incarnation it blackens and deepens, debilitated by the constant barrage of pollution and the poverty. And then at the mercy of the tides, it bleeds into the Potomac and is no more.

Unfortunately for many living outside the Anacostia's watershed - and even for some of its residents - this is the only image they have of one of Maryland's most historic rivers, the smaller, poor relation of the majestic Potomac. But the Anacostia has a history - and even today, retains a tender beauty - that make it more than just another nameless, dirty stream echoing through culverts and spillways.

The Anacostia:
Its Natural History

Map showing the location of the Anacostia, next to Washington D.C. Compared to the Potomac and many other rivers of the Mid-Atlantic, the Anacostia River is small, only 8.4 miles in length. But its watershed encompasses 176 square miles within suburban Maryland and the District of Columbia, making it one of the most densely populated watersheds within the Chesapeake Bay drainage basin. Now considered a degraded urban ecosystem, the Anacostia was once a thriving natural and commercial resource.

An ecologically and physically diverse watershed crossing two physiographic provinces and three political jurisdictions, the river is fed by an extensive network of tributaries, among them the Northwest Branch, Northeast Branch, Sligo Creek, Paint Branch, Little Paint Branch, Indian Creek and Beaverdam Creek. These streams straddle the Montgomery/Prince George's County boundary, the fall line separating Montgomery's Piedmont province of relatively narrow and steep-sloped valleys and fast water, from the undulating Coastal Plain of Prince George's, supporting broader, meandering streams.

It is at the confluence of the river's two main arteries, the Northwest and Northeast branches, that the tidal Anacostia River forms. After a brief yet sluggish run, it joins the Potomac 108 miles upstream of the Chesapeake Bay. The Anacostia's tidal drainage area consists of numerous small streams, most of which are now unrecognizable, having long been enclosed in storm sewer systems.

The "Forgotten" River

Although an essential element in Pierre L'Enfant's original plan for the Nation's Capital, the Anacostia has not fared well over the years, as the area surrounding the "forgotten" river has long been neglected in favor of more affluent regions to the north and west.

When Captain John Smith first surveyed the area in the early 17th century, he found the Anacostia to be a thriving center of Native American culture. The Nanchotank (or Nacotchtank) Indians were settled along its lush shores, and it is from their word "anaquash," meaning a village trading center, that the river derives its name. Containing healthy populations of American and hickory shad, white and yellow perch, red-breasted sunfish, catfish and herring, the Anacostia provided the area's inhabitants with a seemingly limitless food source.

Smith's visits to the region and his tales of a land of plenty subsequently opened the door for European settlement along the river, leading to the changes in patterns of land use that have dramatically altered the watershed. Today little remains of this once highly productive ecosystem.

The first wave of change came in the form of agriculture. Until the Civil War, the forested watershed was progressively cleared, and corn and tobacco farming dominated its land use. These crops were loaded onto seagoing vessels in Bladensburg, then the primary port for Washington and among the East Coast's largest, and shipped to England. Large plantations sprouted up across the countryside. By the mid-nineteenth century most of the watershed was cultivated, and soil eroding from upland agricultural fields and carried downstream had rendered the port inaccessible. This sedimentation continued through the latter half of the century, resulting in the formation of extensive mud flats along the river's banks and reducing its fish populations. In 1902, Congress approved funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge portions of the river up to the Anacostia Navy Yard, further damaging the river's fisheries.

Next came urbanization. Since the late nineteenth century, the Anacostia's ecological problems have directly resulted from the watershed's expanding human population. The river served primarily as a conduit for the city's sewage and refuse until the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest advanced treatment plant in the world, was constructed on the shores of the Potomac in the 1930's. The Anacostia still suffers from overflows of the region's old combined sewers, which empty into the river during periods of heavy rain. As a result of these successive changes, much of the watershed's diversity had vanished long before there was widespread awareness or concern, leaving a severely degraded system that has only recently begun to show signs of improvement.

Life along the Anacostia

Residential development is the single largest land use around the Anacostia, covering more than 43 percent of the watershed; industry and manufacturing account for another 4 percent of the land area. Of the remaining 53 percent, approximately 31 percent is considered "undeveloped," consisting of primarily of forest and parks.

Of the Anacostia watershed's fabled forest, roughly one-quarter or 27,700 acres remains today. As for the river's vast network of feeder streams, most retain between 20 and 30 percent of their total area in forest cover, with what experts consider an adequate riparian cover along 35 to 50 percent of their stream miles.

Just under 3 percent of Anacostia's total watershed area - 3,208 acres - comprises wetlands, the majority located in the eastern Coastal Plain portion. It is estimated that more than 4,000 acres of nontidal wetlands have been lost, representing over 60 percent of the historical nontidal wetland acreage.

Even more alarming is the loss of tidal wetlands in the watershed. 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.

The total area of remaining tidal wetlands is approximately 180 acres (non-open water), constituting an overall loss of more than 90 percent of the originally-occurring tidal wetlands from the watershed.

Making it Better

Two volunteers planting a tree The first efforts to restore the Anacostia watershed began nearly two decades ago. Since that time, local, state and federal government agencies, as well as environmental organizations and dedicated private citizens, have contributed significant resources toward re-establishing as much of the original ecosystem as possible. Formal cooperation between government agencies came with the 1987 signing of the Anacostia Watershed Agreement and the formation of the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Committee (AWRC), consisting of the District of Columbia, Montgomery County, Prince George's County, the State of Maryland, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. National Park Service.

Administrative policy and technical support for the Committee is provided by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. In addition, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin assists in the areas of living resources and citizen education and outreach.

The Committee recognized early the need to establish a framework to guide a more lasting restoration effort. The vision was for an ecologically-based restoration of the watershed which, by 1991, took shape in the form of the Six-Point Action Plan. The plan has become the guiding document for the restoration effort and environmental indicators are being used to track restoration progress. In 1996, the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) was formed to serve in an advisory capacity to the AWRC. This citizen-based committee provides a vital link between the watershed community and the AWRC to ensure that public interests are considered during all restoration and protection projects and activities.

This commitment to restoring the Anacostia is evident in the number of wetland and stream mitigation projects underway in the watershed. Trail along the Anacostia River

  • Anacostia Restoration Project:
    This 30+ acre project in Bladensburg will restore 15 acres of tidal wetlands currently under 20-30 feet of rubble and trash. Work will consist of the removal of landfill material, re-grading and planting. Another 15 acres of degraded non-tidal wetlands will be restored to tidal wetlands by grading to eliminate the invasive plant phragmites\plain\f1\fs20 , and replanting the site with more desirable tidal wetland plants.
  • Bladensburg Marina:
    Approximately two acres of tidal wetland restoration is proposed just north of the marina and promenade. The goal of the project is to provide additional fisheries habitat.
  • Northwest/Sligo Creek:
    This stream restoration project will remove nine blockages to fish migration on Northwest Branch and four on Sligo Creek, reopening nearly seven miles of Northwest Branch and two miles of Sligo Creek to spawning herring and other native fish.
  • Cabin Branch:
    This stream restoration project will clean up and stabilize about 800 feet of this tributary to the Anacostia. The urban stream is loaded with trash: grocery carts, engine blocks, tires, etc. The trash will be removed, and its steep eroding banks will be graded and trees planted to provide shade and long-term stabilization.
  • Tuxedo Road:
    Two acres of wetlands will be created near the Town of Cheverly to provide enhanced water quality filtration of runoff from upstream industrial lands.
  • Little Paint Branch/Indian Creek:
    An existing blockage to fish passage on U.S. Department of Agriculture property and another at MD-Rte.193 will also be removed. Nearly two miles of stream habitat will be opened to herring.
  • Fish stocking:
    This effort began in the spring of 2000 and will continue through the spring of 2004. Biologists will capture herring and collect their eggs, and the young fish will be raised in a hatchery to be restocked into the Anacostia tributaries.
Happy Trails
To foster a sense of pride and community awareness among the region's residents and encourage ecotourism potential, a large area bordering Washington near Bladensburg and continuing northeast in Prince George's County to the Patuxent River in Laurel has been recognized by the State of Maryland as the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. The area is united by a shared history of colonial settlement and agriculture, transportation innovations and small towns.

Bladensburg was the site of an historic battle between the British and American troops during the War of 1812; after pushing through the American lines, the British continued on to Washington, ultimately burning the White House. As the 19th century dawned, small communities began to spring up along the Washington and Baltimore Turnpike. More towns began to develop after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad ran its first train in 1835, and residential suburbs began to fill in the spaces when streetcar lines were constructed a century ago. The College Park Airfield, the oldest airport in continuous use in the world, as well as the birthplace of the U.S. space program, is located within the area.

Also in the works is a bicycle link from Bladensburg, where the Anacostia Headwaters Bicycle Trails end, to the National Mall and downtown D.C. This link will provide local citizens access to the extensive trail network for recreation and as an effective bicycle commuter route.

Protecting Public Health

In the past several years, a series of lawsuits have been filed on behalf of river cleanup officials. The first of these ultimately led the U.S. Navy to agree to clean up portions of the Washington Navy Yard, the large, historic base located on the banks of the Anacostia.

In the wake of these efforts, the federal and D.C. governments also abandoned plans to build a new freeway across the Anacostia River. The proposed freeway would have destroyed several acres of parkland along the river and subjected the Anacostia area to increased traffic, air pollution, runoff and noise. More than $100 million dollars slated to be spent on the project has since been redirected for use on other transportation priorities.

And plans to convert a natural island in the Anacostia to an intensive, for-profit theme park were recently abandoned by the District of Columbia after many years of opposition.

The efforts of so many -- government agencies, private organizations, school groups and citizens associations -- are starting to make a difference: fish are returning, people are making the Anacostia their destination for recreational pursuits, and communities are enjoying their river once again.

So resist the urge to write the Anacostia off as just another polluted urban waterway. For there is beauty to be found, in both the remnants of its once-heralded forests and wetlands, and in the faces of its proud and devoted residents. And you don't have to travel far to see it.

For more information...

Dorcas Coleman is the assistant editor of the Natural Resource.
Photo of river with trail by Bruce Harcock

Natural Resource Home
DNR Home