Residents of five row houses on a steep hillside in Anacostia who say they have been complaining for more than a decade about their soggy back yards finally got the city's ear this week.

A relentless stream of water from a source no one can isolate has turned their yards on Xenia Place SE into swamps. And during heavy rains, water pours into their basements, the residents say.

The homeowners contend that the water mysteriously began flowing about 15 years ago from a glen of scrub trees on the slope behind their modest 40-year-old brick homes.

"Since then it's been muddy wet all year round," said Luella McAdoo, an elderly widow who has laid a swath of blue carpet over the dirty water to get to her back yard clothesline.

"The mosquitoes are something fierce," she said.

She and other homeowners say they called and wrote the city. Meanwhile, they engineered a simple system of drainpipes and ditches to channel the water through their yards and into the street. But eventually that was no longer adequate as the water cut its own widening culvert in the spongy soil.

They called the city again, they said.

Back yard flower gardens became swamped. And the sloping sidewalk in front of their houses where the water flows a stretch before it spills out into the street becomes coated with ice in winter, said Janice Tilghman, who has kept a folder of her correspondence with city departments over the years.

From time to time, city inspectors have gone out and tried to follow the water to its source, but to no avail. The water seems simply to ooze from the ground beneath the trees. More and more of it all the time.

And that is the issue. If the water comes from a leak in a city water or sewer line, it is up to the District to fix it, city officials told homeowners this week. If it comes from a natural source, it's up to them.

The policy was made clear after residents invited officials from the mayor's community relations office to a neighborhood meeting.

When they didn't show up, a group of eight homeowners stormed into the Reeves Municipal Center on Friday morning and confronted surprised city officials.

"Since 1975 I have been working on this water problem, and I've been put on hold," McAdoo said. "They haven't sent anybody, and they haven't had the courtesy to call."

"They took us seriously," William Edwards said. "That was the first time."

Jim Zais, supervisor of city liaison officers, told the homeowners that the city would investigate to determine the water's source, then tell them who must drain it away.

An inspector from the city's Public Works Department went out that afternoon and took water samples for a city lab to analyze.

The analysis will show whether the water is fresh or contains either purifying chemicals or sewage. That will determine if the water comes from a city source or a natural one, such as a spring, Zais said.

If it's a natural, it will be up to the homeowners to fix the problem, Zais said. The builder may be responsible if drainage regulations were ignored. But it is unlikely the developer can be found after 40 years, Zais said.

He also said the city sometimes will fix such problems when several residents are affected.

Five years ago, a resident farther up the hill persuaded the Public Works Department to install a drainage basin the size of a wading pool to fix a problem in her yard, and that project could have set a precedent, Zais said.

City officials have promised to present the results of their investigation at a special meeting with the homeowners tonight.

If the residents must pay, most will qualify for low-interest loans through the city, said Sandy Allen, the city's Ward 8 community liaison.

"But whoever winds up paying to fix this problem," she said, "it's going to be expensive."