Last year, the Anacostia Watershed Society put out its first report card on the state of the city’s less favored river. The news wasn’t good: Maryland and D.C. had earned failing grades on their efforts to improve water quality, which has been degraded over decades of leakage from toxic sites and outflows of raw sewage during rainstorms. Hopefully, the advocates thought, that would get the political establishment’s attention.

This year, although it’s hard to confirm evidence of real progress over just two years of data collection, the news is a little better. The river still rated an F grade overall for the health of aquatic vegetation—a metric determined by the amount of light that’s able to reach plants at the river floor—pollution from fecal bacteria has improved markedly, as has the amount of dissolved oxygen, which bugs and fish need to survive. “Basically the message this year is that we hit bottom, and are starting to climb back out,” says AWS’ Julie Lawson

Here’s a breakdown, section by section:


Kudos, Maryland! The upstream section is the healthiest part of the river, with less and less fecal matter over the years, excellent levels of dissolved oxygen, and almost healthy amounts of chlorophyll. That’s due in part to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s work to fix broken pipes, a strong stormwater control project, stream restorations, and neighborhood-scale retrofit projects like rain gardens and green streets. Montgomery County also instituted nickel charge on plastic bags.


The District is doing the most of the political jurisdictions, with a strict new stormwater runoff permit, a large-scale effort to control runoff, a bag tax that’s reduced the amount of plastic in the river, and trash traps that catch some of the rest. But there are still sites leaking toxics into the river, as well as combined sewer outfalls that release sewage during high rains. The section north of the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge has decent levels of dissolved oxygen and  improving amounts of chlorophyll.


Where the Anacostia joins the Potomac, it’s got less dissolved oxygen and less chlorophyll than further upstream, but less fecal matter and clearer water. The lower reaches of the river are also the most influenced by overall federal policy, which has improved recently with the Urban Waters pilot program, and things are looking up, with a $5 million fund from the Environmental Protection Agency for restoration projects.

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