One mans opinion at WaPoo, The Potomac River is swimmable again. D.C. should legalize it by D. Randall Benn
The adage is that “nature finds a way.” However, when it comes to the healing of many of this country’s great rivers, such as the Potomac River, nature needs our help to repair the damage we have done.
When Europeans first arrived in these waters some 500 years ago, they found that Native Americans had already settled these shores for centuries because of the scenery’s astounding beauty and bounty. Capt. John Smith described in journals that the fish were so plentiful you could practically cross the river by walking across their backs. And Thomas Jefferson later described the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry as “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
However, as with many of the great waterways around the world, our young country used the Potomac, which was intended to be “the front door” to the capital of a new nation, as little more than an open sewer. Over time, it was so choked with pollution and refuse that, by the 1960s, it is said (at least apocryphally) that when President Lyndon B. Johnson asked where he could cast a line, he was told he was more likely to catch hepatitis than a fish. This led to him labeling the river a “national disgrace,” which put us on the path to passage of one of our most important and successful laws: the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, better known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). Those of us dedicated to improving water quality celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legislation’s passage this year.
The CWA created enforcement tools that have made it possible for organizations such as the Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN), of which I am the board chair, to hold polluters accountable for their insults to the Potomac. For example, raw sewage overflows, a chronic threat to our rivers and public health that is exacerbated by climate-change-induced heavy rain events, are being addressed in D.C. through the Clean Rivers Project. PRKN-led trash cleanups are reducing trash in our waterways and raising awareness about the growing problem of plastics pollution. That action and enforcement, plus nature’s healing powers, have meant a reblooming of life in our watershed, including the return of dolphins in the Lower Potomac, shad at Thompson’s and Fletcher’s Boat Houses and sturgeon in Georgetown.
Now, D.C.’s gaze has turned toward our waterfronts, including the Wharf, National Harbor and Washington Harbour in Georgetown, which are job creators and magnets for locals and tourists alike. This literal rising tide benefits everyone in the region, especially the 6 million people who draw their drinking water from the Potomac.
Looking forward, we at PRKN dream of a (near) future when we can overturn the D.C. swim ban and reinstate swimming for the first time since the 1920s. We know that with committed effort by our capable staff and trained volunteers who sample and test water every week from May through October and the support of the public, this vision is achievable. In fact, the results of our Community Science Water Quality Monitoring Program have indicated that the Potomac has recovered so well that many locations are already safe for human contact with the river.
Our broad goal, in addition to lifting the ban on swimming, is to encourage the creation of more public beaches so that all members of the public can have access to this beautiful treasure — a far cry from the 1920s when beaches were “Whites only” and some were closed to avoid integration.
I spent quite a bit of time on and around the Potomac River in my working days, and while I never actually swam to my memory, I waded and collect waters and sediment in the River itself, and in some of its less savory tributaries. For the most part, I would have no issue with swimming in the Potomac in the area of Washington D.C., except after a major freshet.
On the other hand, when we proposed to work in the Anacostia, they made us get Hepatitis A vaccinations before we could go.