The Day the Anacostia River Turned Orange

June 30, 2011 - Sediment laden water flows into the Northeast Branch

On June 30, 2011, the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River turned orange.  Coincidentally, this incident happened the morning of our Anacostia River Swim for Clean Water.  Several citizens and Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) staff reported the discoloration.  As the AWS Water Quality Specialist, I tracked down the pollution source and found a ditch filled with sediment-laden water and reported this case to Prince George’s County Department of Natural Resources.  I also shared some pollution photos with members of Anacostia Watershed Citizen’s Advisory Committee (AWCAC) via its listserv.  Some AWCAC members provided very useful information.  Among them, Dan Smith’s (a member of Friends of Lower Beaverdam Creek) description was very helpful.  An excerpt from his email is below.

“… it was a water main that broke and the tremendous volume and velocity of that blowout caused erosion that generated a huge influx of sediment. An email to Masaya earlier today identified the location in East Riverdale just east of Kenilworth and south of Riverdale Road (on Carters Lane at about 58th Ave).  I happened to be waiting for auto service at the nearby Firestone office at about noon so walked down to see what was going on.  A number of trucks were just rolling up to attack a SECOND break in the line that had occurred this morning.  A customer service rep on site told me that the first break was repaired yesterday, but while repairing the damage to the street, I was told that the heavy equipment on the road (moving and dropping huge chunks of asphalt) caused enough jarring that the water pipe just under the road broke in another nearby location.  So there must have been another incident of major sediment flow into the Anacostia this morning.  By the time I got there, the main had been shut down, but there was a fair amount of gravel and clay sediment strewn down the street for at least a block.  Many trucks rolled in to begin the repair and cleanup.  I was told it would take all day to fix this second broken pipe."

This testimonial description explains well that the WSSC water main pipe was too old to hold the weight of trucks and material to repair the first broken pipe.

It is known that WSSC’s water main pipes are too old.  Actually this is not only a WSSC’s problem, but a problem nation-wide.  Water main pipes across the nation are very old.  What's even worse is that the pipe replacement cycle is too slow.  It takes about 100 years to replace pipes.  Many of the WSSC pipes are about 50 years old, so basically some of those pipes will end up being 150 years old when they are finally replaced.

AWS is concerned that the frequency of these sediment pollution events from water main breaks may increase in the future.

Shown below are several additional examples of when the color of streams changed drastically, most of which were caused by water main breaks.  Some happened in Maryland and others in the District of Columbia.

June 14, 2007 at Bladensburg Road Bridge

July 16, 2008 at Rhode Island Ave. on the Northwest Branch

September 1, 2009 on the Northwest Branch
A video is available on this event:

On 08.01.2011 more photos were added.

October 20, 2005 on the Northwest Branch

September 21, 2007 on the Northwest Branch


June 12, 2010 on the Northwest Branch


April 5, 2005 on a tributary to the NW Branch


April 28, 2004 on the Long Branch to Sligo Creek


The Day the Anacostia River Turned Orange |

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Orange River

The river is not supposed to be orange. Nor are periodic sediment loads such as this. WSSC and the US EPA need to institute studies to learn how long it takes for a river to recover. Certainly, just a day's loading of the river with silt might seem benign. Fish can probably manage. Freshwater worms and other invertebrates that live in the river bottom might survive. It is also reasonable to expect that some organisms can't adapt to the drastic changes. Even ignoring the sediment, a sudden influx of treated drinking water could be damaging. Anyone with a home aquarium knows that you need to neutralize the chlorine or chloramine before you add tap water. These water main breaks are nearly predictable and it needs to be determined whether they constitute a violate of the letter of the Clean Water Act or at least its spirit. You can't keep smothering the river every two years and expect it to be healthy.

Thank you for your comment

G Patton,


Thank you for your comment. "WSSC and the US EPA need to institute studies to learn how long it takes for a river to recover."


In addition to this I think EPA needs to figure out the price for the damage. And WSSC should pay for it. When we have a wet basement due to WSSC water main break or other WSSC pipe failure, we could be paid by them. So, the river should be paid for the damage.


Also, if the cause of the break was due to the old pipe beyond its lifetime, it means that WSSC is not maintaining the pipe in a proper manner. Then, the case was likely preventable and the pollution was man-made because of negligence or tardiness. From this pint of view, I think WSSC should be fined.


WSSC could have an emergency team like a hazmat team to temporarily hold the sediment-laden water and separate the sediment particles from it then discharge clean water.


It might be expensive but if WSSC doesn't pay for it, the environment/river will have to endure the damage.

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