Urban River Restoration
Channelized Urban Stream. USFWS photo.
Channelized urban stream. USFWS photo.

Coursing through the heart of the nation’s capital, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers have been overcome by the burdens associated with supporting nearly 4 million people. Heavy traffic, office buildings and parking lots border the rivers’ edge, where grasses, wildflowers and trees used to be. Rather than clear water winding freely through the landscape, concrete walls channel clouded water down a sterile path. Raw sewage, toxic chemicals and trash inhibit fish, turtles and frogs from spawning and breeding. The challenges of restoring what may be considered the most threatened rivers in the U.S. are at best, overwhelming.

Sewage run off. USFWS photo.
Sewage run off. USFWS photo.

Problems from historical channelization, dredging, and water control structures have been compounded by the lack of riparian buffers, shoreline erosion, leaking sewer lines, uncontrolled stormwater runoff and excessive sedimentation. Industrial operations, residential development and agricultural activities dramatically changed the landscape and degraded the rivers’ water quality for people, fish and wildlife.

Various watershed organizations and government agencies have directed their restoration efforts towards the problems of pollution, urban runoff, and shoreline erosion, but both rivers are still imperiled. Staff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office (CBFO) are now addressing water quality issues, aquatic habitat degradation and pollution affecting the Potomac and Anacostia through watershed assessment and restoration.

The CBFO Stream Habitat Assessment and Restoration Program entered into a 5-year agreement with Washington , D.C. Department of Health to conduct stream and riparian habitat restoration projects within the District of Columbia’s watersheds.

Riparian habitat. USFWS photo.
Riparian habitat. USFWS photos.

CBFO will restore riparian corridor habitats that include in-stream, riparian, floodplain, and terrestrial habitats. CBFO uses a watershed and natural channel restoration approach to develop and implement projects. Upon completion of the stream restoration projects in Washington D.C., over 8 miles of stream will be restored in three separate watersheds (Watts Branch and Hickey Run which lead to the Anacostia River and Oxon Run which drains into the Potomac River.)

But restoring an urban river to its natural form amidst the hustle and bustle of a city is no easy task. CBFO will be challenged by the logistics of moving heavy equipment around busy intersections and antiquated infrastructure. However, the benefits of restoring aquatic habitat for fish and invertebrates and addressing water quality issues impacting both the Potomac and Anacostia will not only increase the number of species able to use the rivers for spawning and breeding habitat, but will also provide recreational and educational opportunities for urban communities to reconnect with nature.

Flowing, healthy stream. USFWS photo.

Project Partners:

  • Washington, D.C. Department of Health
  • U.S. National Park Service
  • Washington, D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Washington, D.C. Water and Sewer Authority
  • Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation

 For more information, please contact Tamara McCandless at (410) 573-4552.