Historical Changes of the Watershed

Anacostia River Marshes, Circa 1890

The Anacostia watershed encompasses 456 square kilometers (176 mi2) within suburban Maryland and the District of Columbia. The Anacostia watershed is one of the most densely populated watersheds within the Chesapeake Bay drainage basin. The watershed today is known to be a degraded urban ecosystem but was once heralded as a thriving natural and commercial resource in it's earlier history. The watershed has undergone many changes through the years, mainly due to the influence of urbanization on the ecosystem. Although the once pristine watershed reflects a system that has suffered from years of environmental neglect and urbanization, major restoration efforts since 1987 are beginning to improve conditions.

Early History

The Anacostia watershed was a thriving center of Indian culture set amidst the Piedmont and Coastal Plain provinces in the early 17th century, the time of European contact. The Nanchotank (Nacotchtank) Indians, a semiagricultural tribe, lived at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in what is now Washington, DC. Containing healthy populations of American and hickory shad, white and yellow perch, red-breasted sunfish, catfish, and herring, the fishery of the Anacostia River provided the Nanchotank Indians and others living in the surrounding region with a seemingly limitless food source. Lush forests and abundant wildlife complemented the crystal clear river that flowed into the Potomac River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. Nearly 400 years have passed since the first European explorer--Captain John Smith--visited the Anacostia basin while surveying navigable waters of the Potomac region in 1608. A map drafted by Smith four years later charts the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, Potomac River, and Eastern Branch (what is known today as the Anacostia River). Captain Smith's visit to the region opened the door for subsequent European settlement along the Anacostia River and led to the changes in land use that have dramatically altered the watershed. Four hundred years of successive waves of cultivation and urbanization have transformed the Anacostia watershed from a basin covered with dense hardwood forest, abundant wildlife, and streams filled with fish to a busy metropolitan area with more than 800,000 residents.

Agriculture, The First Wave of Change

From the time of the first European settlement to the Civil War, the forested Anacostia watershed was progressively cleared for agriculture. Tobacco, corn and small grain farming dominated the early land use in the Anacostia watershed. These crops were loaded onto sea-going ships in Bladensburg, the then primary seaport for Washington. Most of the watershed was reportedly brought under cultivation by 1860 (Williams, 1942). This initial wave of change led to increasing sedimentation of the Anacostia River. Soil eroding from upland agricultural fields was transported downstream to the tidal river, crippling by 1800 the once thriving port of Bladensburg. This accelerated sedimentation continued through the latter half of the nineteenth century, resulting in the formation of extensive mud-flats along the banks of the tidal river. Both Colonel Hain's 1890 study and Colonel Allen's Plan of 1898 called for dredging a channel and "reclaiming" the mud-flats. In 1902, Congress approved funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge portions of the tidal Anacostia up to the Anacostia Navy Yard, as well as a smaller channel upstream to the District line (Gordan, 1987 ).

Urbanization, The Second Wave of Change

Since the late nineteenth century, ecological problems in the Anacostia watershed have largely resulted from an expanding human population and the associated changes in land use and land cover. The ongoing loss of forest and wetland habitat, alteration of streamflow, increases in nonpoint source pollution, and discharges of combined sewer overflow and industrial waste all contributed to the decline in the ecological health of the watershed. These shifts in land use patterns over the last four centuries have drastically changed the ecology of the watershed. Over time, much of the beauty and diversity of the Anacostia watershed has vanished without widespread awareness of the loss. The twin waves of agriculture and urban development have left a severely degraded system that has only recently begun to show signs of improvement due to extensive and ongoing restoration efforts.