After years of unchecked sewage flowing into the Potomac River, President Lyndon B. Johnson called the river “a national disgrace” in 1965. Although efforts to clean up the river have improved the quality of the water, continued concerns about its cleanliness prompted conservationists to add a little sparkle to the muddy water.
The cleanliness of the Potomac has long been an issue, exacerbated by the doubled flow of the District’s raw, partially treated sewage into the river between 1932 and 1956, according to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.
Potomac Conservancy President Hedrick Belin described the state of the Potomac in the 1960s.
“If you came up the Potomac toward Georgetown from the national airport, in August, between Georgetown and the Kennedy Center there’d be a solid green mat of algae that your boat would have to go through,” Belin said.
Johnson’s 1965 proclamation catalyzed an effort to conserve waterways nationwide and culminated in the Clean Water Act of 1972, which increased funding for the sewage system and marked a turning point in pollution prevention.
“A large result of the Clean Water Act [is that] there’s been a 40-year focus … of investing millions of dollars in updating sewer treatment plants,” Belin said.
Despite this progress, pollution remains a major issue. A 2014 report titled “State of the Nation’s River,” released by the Potomac Conservancy, expressed worry about continued contributors to river pollution, including aging sewage infrastructure and the disappearance of healthy forests, which prevent runoff.
Sewage remains the largest pollution contributor; there are around 40 locations where sewage could release a staggering amount of bacteria and waste during periods of rainfall.
Swimming in any of the rivers or streams in the District is illegal. The sole exception to this law is the nation’s Triathlon, though even this event has been cancelled twice in recent years because of hazardous levels of sewage in the water.
Maxwell Menard (SFS ’16), a member of the Georgetown crew team, described some of the problems that he has encountered with the Potomac.
“I don’t think we’ve had any health issues because of the Potomac, but we do run into debris. … Garbage, a lot of big logs, also a deer carcass once, it’s a pretty steady amount of debris and garbage,” Menard said. “We just take it as part of the river, we don’t really question it.”
Additionally, Belin explained that the state of the river continues to have a unnatural effect on the river’s bass, causing more than 80 percent of the male smallmouth bass to lay eggs.
“It’s interfering with their biological systems, which is clearly a canary in the coal mine,” Belin said.
Belin’s organization is at the forefront of attempts to protect the river. The Potomac Conservancy, founded in 1993 by a group of kayakers that Belin described as a “merry band of river warriors,” encourages local policymakers to create smart planning that will contribute to river health.
“We’re seeing a lot more green roofs on buildings to capture the rain water where it falls … using materials that allow the rainwater to percolate in the ground rather than having it run off their driveways,” Belin said.
In a similar vein, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority began implementing a $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project to reduce 96 percent of the sewage overflow in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and Rock Creek by 2025, a target that exceeds both Environmental Protection Agency requirements and the systems of other major cities.
The project will overhaul the sewer system of about one-third of the region, which features pipes that are insufficiently equipped to handle large rainstorms. D.C. Clean Rivers Project Director Carlton Ray said the ambitious project is feasible.
“It’s a very high capture rate, we understand, but we feel like our rivers and streams are worth it,” Ray said.
Ray added that D.C. residents will see noticeable improvements in the cleanliness of the city’s waterways, as portions of the project will be completed in the next few years.
“Ultimately we need to continue to build the tunnel system up into the northeast part of the district to help with the Anacostia, but it will be dramatically improved in the near term by 2018 once we finish the tunnel system up to RFK stadium,” Ray said.
Belin stressed the necessity of making smart choices in the future to protect the river and to allow both conservation and progress.
“I think supporting our region’s growth and restoring the Potomac is not mutually exclusive, but it’s going to take a lot of work,” Belin said.
Hoya Staff Writer Kristen Fedor contributed reporting.