The Anacostia watershed has always been central to the growth and prosperity of those who live on its banks. Flowing through the densely populated Washington, DC metropolitan area, the Anacostia watershed provides recreation opportunities and natural respite within an ever more urban landscape.
The Anacostia River’s mainstem is 8.5 miles long and runs from Bladensburg, MD all the way down to its confluence with the Potomac River in DC. The whole watershed, or area of land that drains into the mainstem, is 176 square miles and comprises parts of Washington DC, Montgomery County, MD, and Prince George’s County, MD.
The Anacostia is one of the most urbanized watersheds in the United States with 70% of the land designated as developed. It is also one of only three rivers in the US with a “trash diet” — a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) — because of all of the trash pollution entering its waterways. The Anacostia River is threatened by stormwater runoff, sewage, trash, and toxics pollution. We at Anacostia Riverkeeper, along with other community groups, have worked to restore the river so that it can be fishable and swimmable for all, but the legacy of many of these issues persists today.
The Anacostia River and the land along its banks is the ancestral home of the Nacotchtank people, which is where the name Anacostia is derived from. In 1608, Captain John Smith traveled up the Anacostia River, marking the beginning of European colonization in the area. At the time, the river was 40 feet deep and navigable by large ships all the way up to Bladensburg. He and subsequent explorers like Sir Henry Fleet noted the beauty of the area, writing that it was “the most pleasant and healthful place in all this country.”
By the late 1600s, the Nacotchtank people had been killed by disease or conflict with Europeans, left the area, or intermarried. Early clearcutting for settlement and agriculture, especially from tobacco farming, led to soil erosion and sedimentation into the river, limited access to the upper watershed, and flooding.
The Civil War forced an unprecedented population boom in Washington as former slaves from plantations in the South moved north and wounded soldiers came back to be treated. With inadequate sewage and stormwater systems to serve the growing population of the city, as DC grew into a booming hub, increased human and animal waste flowed freely into the river and led to many epidemics from waterborne diseases. DC’s sewer system was not expanded or improved until the early 1900s and continued to be a major source of pollution to the river until the Clean Rivers Project in 2018. Learn more.
The 20th century brought new issues to the Anacostia River, primarily toxic contaminants from industrial activity in the area. Before regulation under the Clean Water Act, industrial and city entities were effectively allowed to freely use the Anacostia as their dumping ground, causing chemicals, heavy metals, and other waste to be dumped or seep into the river. Learn more.
Efforts to clean up the Anacostia River began in the 1980s with the formation of citizen groups and environmental organizations who were dedicated to improving the health of the river. In 1987, the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Act was passed, which created a plan to restore the Anacostia River and its watershed. Since then, several restoration projects have been undertaken to clean up the river including building wetlands, reducing stormwater runoff, improving sewer infrastructure, and mitigating trash pollution. While there is still much work to be done, these efforts have helped improved the water quality of the Anacostia River and its surrounding ecosystem. Learn more.
The Anacostia River is known for its distinct wildlife diversity. One prominent species in the river is the bald eagle, which has made a significant resurgence in recent years. Many areas along the river, like Kingman Island, provide a great place for birdwatching in the heart of the city. In addition, there are several species of fish, including blue catfish, largemouth bass, and carp. However, the Anacostia River’s fish populations have been adversely affected by toxics pollution, and as a result, fishing in the river is highly regulated.
Sign up for one of our boat tours or explore our virtual, interactive tour to learn more about the history and wildlife of the river!
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