Celebrating Black History Month – With a Renewed Call for Public Beaches for Everyone

As we celebrate Black History Month this February, we naturally would like to think about the progress we, as a nation, have achieved. But we still need to focus on the work yet to be done to right historic wrongs.

For example, are you a resident of the District of Columbia and want to swim in the Potomac? Plan on making a trip to Virginia or Maryland. Since 1971, the District has banned swimming in the Potomac unless you are swimming from a boat or paddle board. DC is the only city in America to completely ban swimming because of sewage pollution from the city’s combined sewer system.

Originally, there was a health and safety reason for the ban. The rivers in DC were seldom safe for swimming. The older parts of DC have combined sewers where sewage and stormwater flow through the same set of pipes. After a rainfall, the pipes overflow, spilling sewage and stormwater directly into the local rivers untreated. DC Water has been building storage tunnels for these combined systems for many years and plans to complete its current combined sewer renovations to make sewer overflows into the Potomac rare by 2030.  

What has this got to do with Black History?

Pollution is not the only reason that there are no swimming beaches in DC. Roughly 100 years ago, there were swimming beaches in the Tidal Basin with bath houses, diving platforms, and other improvements to enhance public use and enjoyment. But the only “public” allowed to use these beaches were Whites.  Some members of Congress at the urging of the NAACP, appropriated funds to build facilities for a beach for Blacks, but a majority of members of Congress voted to close the Tidal Basin to swimming altogether rather than allow Blacks to swim in the same body of water as Whites.  And public access never recovered.

PRKN wants to reverse that history and open up safe swimming beaches in the Potomac River in DC for everyone of every race, creed, and color. To do that, we need to make sure swimming is safe.

We are supporting DC Water’s investments in infrastructure that will end routine discharges of raw sewage into the river, but we are doing more than that. For several years, Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s volunteers have conducted weekly water sampling of the Potomac from May through September – now at 29 sites, demonstrating that the water is frequently safe for human contact, and at some sites, more than 90% of the time. With proper monitoring and public communication about when it is safe to swim, river swimming could be enjoyed by DC residents and visitors today.

So now public safety is no longer the basis for the ban, let’s honor Black History Month by creating public beaches so that all residents can enjoy the Nation’s River.

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