DC Mythbusting: Water, Water Everywhere

Photo courtesy of
‘Potomac River – Traffic on the Key Bridge – 04-20-10’
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

I went for a swim in the Potomac River this weekend, and right before I jumped in the water I heard two fellow triathletes have the following conversation:
Triathlete 1: I have a friend who signed up for this race, but he dropped out because he has an Ironman tri coming up, and he wanted to be healthy for it.
Triathlete 2: (confused look)
Triathlete 1: Oh, you didn’t know?  The Potomac River is one of the dirtiest rivers in the country, and people have caught hepatitis from it.  He wanted to make sure he didn’t catch anything during today’s swim.
Triathlete 2: Oh my God.

The triathletes then continued to discuss the poor quality of the river they were about to jump into.  I doubted that anyone could catch hepatitis from a body of water (but apparently I was wrong), but I started to wonder whether it was true that the Potomac River was one of the worst in the country.  So after swimming, biking, and running around the District, I decided to sit down and put this myth to the test.  Is DC home to the most polluted rivers in America?

Photo courtesy of
‘Kayaking the storm’
courtesy of ‘pablo.raw’

Well, yes and no.  The river that these triathletes were discussing, the Potomac, is actually in better shape than it has been in decades.  The river that Lyndon Johnson once called “a national disgrace” is now growing healthy vegetation and clearer than it’s been in years.

But still, this is a river that started off in a bad place.  In 1969, the river was declared “a severe threat to the health of anyone coming into contact with it.”  And swimming in the Potomac is still illegal in the District of Columbia (except for special events like triathlons), and before the Nation’s Triathlon got permission to hold a swim in the Potomac back in 2007, no one had legally been allowed to swim in the Potomac River in DC since 1971.  And of course, there are still invasive species and intersex fish to worry about.  (But hey, the sharks seem to be doing fine!)

So while the water quality still isn’t great, it’s better than it has been in quite some time.  But could someone swimming in the Potomac River really get sick from it?  Unfortunately, the answer is yes.  According to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, “While bacteria are integral parts of any natural system, some kinds, in sufficient numbers, can cause gastrointestinal illness, skin and ear infections, respiratory illness, and sometimes worse problems.”  While the ICPRB doesn’t elaborate on “worse problems”, I’m beginning to regret accidentally swallowing several mouthfuls of river water on Sunday.

Photo courtesy of
‘Anacostia and SW Waterfront’
courtesy of ‘InspirationDC’

What about DC’s other river, the long-forgotten Anacostia?  Here’s where the story gets even worse.  The Anacostia River is polluted with lots of raw sewage, oil and grease from the runoff of area streets, and chemical contaminants from the Navy Yard.  And there’s just a lot of trash floating around the river too.  It is one of the most polluted tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

But this, too, is getting better.  The major sewer utilities in the area are cleaning up their act to make sure that sewage stops flowing into the river, the 5-cent bag fee that started back in January has gone to clean up the river, and the surge in riverfront development is attracting new investment in the Anacostia.  The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is focused on drawing even more reinvestment to the river and connecting communities on both sides of it.  So while it’s not safe to swim in the Anacostia or eat fish from it today, there’s hope for the future.

That’s generally the story with both of DC’s rivers: things have been really bad, they’re getting better, and the future looks promising.  And even though our rivers aren’t in great shape, they’re not in the Top 10 Most Endangered Rivers (though the Anacostia made the list of the 10 most polluted rivers back in 1994 and 1995).  So no, DC isn’t home to the dirtiest rivers in the country, but there’s a long way to go before DC is home to the cleanest.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

4 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Water, Water Everywhere

  1. The title shouldn’t be “DC Mythbusting” it should be called “Realizing the truth”; no myths were busted here. Anyone who lives in DC proper knows that the waters are dirty, polluted, and unhealthy doesn’t take a marine ecologist to figure that one out.

  2. That it’s normally illegal to swim in the District (except during triathlons) should be enough information to most people to avoid the water. Are triathletes just crazier? There is still a long way to go before all of the sewer line breaks are repaired, and the combined sewer overflows (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_sewer) can be retrofitted to avoid raw sewage from entering the waterways after a rain storm. The next time you see your water and sewer bill and think it’s too high, think again about the true costs to society and the environment – you’re really paying just pennies on what it should cost.

  3. Zesty, why so angry?? Great article. I’ve gone boating on the Potomac many times but never had the nerve to swim in it because I figured it was a little too dirty. Good to know the truth!

  4. Wasn’t angry, was trying to be satirical but I’ll work on my intonation next time. Again, I’m joking.