By Kayla Benjamin
The Potomac River — described once by President Lyndon Johnson as “a river of decaying sewage and rotten algae” in 1965 — is now on track to become safe for swimming and fishing year-round by 2030, Potomac Conservancy president Hedrick Belin said at a press conference Tuesday. The organization gave the river’s health a “B” grade on the 2023 report card released at the event, up from a “D” in 2011.
“Clean water improvement efforts take time,” Belin said in an interview. “We’re seeing techniques and strategies that were put in place in the ‘90s or early 2000s start to pay off.”
The river has seen marked decreases in pollution, in large part due to decadeslong efforts throughout the Chesapeake Bay to target industrial and agricultural pollution sources. DC Water’s ongoing Clean Rivers Project, a $2.7 billion court-mandated initiative that includes massive tunnels to hold excess stormwater, has also kept billions of gallons of sewer overflows out of District waterways.
The District aims to make all of the city’s waterways swimmable and fishable by 2032, and some advocates have pushed for the city to end the swimming ban enacted in 1971. Several locations in both the Potomac and the Anacostia are safe to swim in more than 75% of the year, according to local water monitoring efforts.
With cleaner water, many populations of fish and other wildlife species (including bald eagles, American shad fish and even bottlenose dolphins) have successfully rebounded in the Potomac.
More humans have begun spending time in and around the Potomac, too, as boating and other river-based recreation activities boomed during the pandemic. Sports fishing licenses quadrupled in 2020, with more than 7,800 sold in that year alone.
“I think the success we’re seeing is because people have decided that this is a resource, it’s part of their quality of life, and it’s a community asset,” Belin said. “They’re the reasons that Maryland has passed laws, or the District has provided more money [for clean river initiatives]. It takes people power.”
Not All Good News
Though the three pollutants used in the report’s grading system — phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment — have all shown great reductions, other harmful substances still pose a threat to the river. Urban runoff has increased, and some older toxics that have since been banned, like PCBs, do not break down easily and tend to stick around in the water.
Underwater grasses, which are both highly sensitive to pollution and crucial for aquatic ecosystems, have struggled to make a comeback. Some fish species that used to have well-established populations in the Potomac have also continued to decline, including striped and small-mouthed bass.
Perhaps most pressingly, the report found that states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes the Potomac, are not doing nearly enough to restore and preserve trees and other forest vegetation along the river. Maryland lost over 19,000 acres of forest between 2013 and 2018, according to a 2022 technical study commissioned by the state. More than half of all tree loss in the state came from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, both of which lie along the Potomac.
In addition to providing important wildlife habitats, riverside trees — often called forested buffers — play a vital role in keeping the water clean. Tree roots hold soil in place, mitigating riverbank erosion and preventing sediment from getting into the water. They also absorb rainwater and filter runoff before it reaches a river or stream.
“Trees are the single best way to reduce stormwater runoff; they capture carbon, they improve water quality, they improve air quality,” said Anna Mudd, Senior Director of Policy for Potomac Conservancy. “We’re not going to get across the finish line unless we make a concentrated effort to conserve our forested land throughout the watershed.”
Earlier this month, Maryland Governor Wes Moore signed legislation updating the state’s Forest Conservation Act. The bill raises standards for forest protection, and changes the state’s overall policy goals from simply maintaining forested lands with no net losses to instead encouraging an increase in forest acreage.
“We’ve done so much good policy work in Maryland, all of which is helping to clean up the [Chesapeake] Bay and the Potomac,” said Delegate Sara Love, of Montgomery County’s 16th District, who sponsored the forest protection bill. “Working together, we can raise that ‘B’ to an ‘A.’”
The Potomac Conservancy has also made protecting forests in the river’s watersheds a key priority. Last year, the organization launched “Tomorrow’s Trees,” which enlists volunteers in the fall to collect native trees’ seeds and acorns for use in reforestation projects.
“Acorns are very familiar to everybody and it’s something that’s an easy intergenerational activity,” said Alexis Dickerson, Potomac Conservancy’s Senior Director of Community Conservation. “A toddler can pick up a seed.”
Climate Change Could Stymie or Even Reverse Potomac Progress
Because the seeds from “Tomorrow’s Trees” belong to native trees, they will have a better chance than trees from outside the region of remaining resilient to the impacts of climate change, Dickerson said. The planet’s warming, caused by emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gasses, presents a number of challenges to river conservation efforts.
Heavy rainfall events, which often wash polluted runoff into streams and rivers, are becoming more frequent in our region. Further, warmer water holds less oxygen, making it difficult for many species of fish to survive. Algal blooms — big patches of sometimes algae that can destroy whole ecosystems and foster harmful bacteria growth — thrive in warm water.
Why This Matters — Even If You Don’t Live Along the Potomac
The Potomac River stretches over 400 miles, and almost 7 million people live within its watershed. But the river’s impact also extends to other waterways.
“The Anacostia River and the Potomac — water has no boundaries,” said Richard Jackson, interim director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, at Tuesday’s press conference. “It’s all tied together, so as the health of the Potomac grows, so does the health of the Anacostia grow.”
Also, pretty much all of the District’s drinking water originates in the Potomac.
“You are bathing in water that’s from the Potomac River, you’re drinking that water, you’re cooking with that water,” Dickerson said. “We should be deeply invested in protecting something that’s intimately part of our lives on a day to day basis.”
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