Imagine you are out paddling along the shores of the Lower Potomac River, enjoying a crisp but sunny fall day. You can feel the warmth of the sun on your shoulders as you paddle your kayak or SUP, and are admiring the sounds of the Canada Geese flying overhead signifying the arrival of fall. Suddenly as you continue your journey along the shoreline you begin to notice some less than pleasant details of your paddle. The water becomes warm, murky, and frothy. You begin to notice the smell of sewage. As you paddle you are suddenly aware of the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) that is releasing raw sewage into the Potomac along your route. You paddle carefully back to the boathouse, trying your best not to splash the murky brown water on yourself or your gear, pondering whether you would get sick if you fell overboard or if your kayak got swamped from the wake of one inconsiderate powerboat. Unfortunately, this has been a reality for some paddlers along the lower Potomac this season.
Usually, CSO overflows only trigger during heavy rainfall events, and DC Water is currently working towards installing a new tunnel system to phase out these CSO’s and prevent the sewage from being released into the river. However, concerned citizens have brought to light that overflows from CSO outfall 29 are occurring more frequently during periods of dry, sunny weather, and our own Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks witnessed firsthand a dry weather overflow during a paddle trip hosted out of the Key Bridge Boathouse with the University Club at the end of August. The frequency of this sewage overflow into the river over the past couple of months is unacceptable and a serious public health issue for a large number of boaters and paddlers, as this outfall directly affects the waters surrounding the Key Bridge Boathouse and Washington Canoe Club.
Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s Citizen Science Water Quality Monitoring program in partnership with the Anacostia Riverkeeper (Who is funded by DOEE) conducts weekly E.Coli sampling at this location. At times, our samples have shown unusually high levels of bacteria near outfall 29, even during dry weather, when it has not rained in some time. Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the DOEE, and the EPA are looking into this pollution and are ensuring that the source of the issue is being addressed, but it is pollution events exactly like this that prove the importance of our Swimmable Potomac Campaign. The data collected by our Citizen Science Water Quality Monitoring program gives us an accurate picture of when and where the Potomac River is safe versus when it is a public health threat. Our campaign has a goal of achieving a 96% reduction in sewer overflows into the Potomac River by 2030, which will be achieved through investments in green infrastructure and DC Waters plans for a sewage storage tunnel under Georgetown. Potomac Riverkeeper Network is also working on launching a “Pollution Rapid Response Team” which will serve as a watchdog to collect timely and accurate data on reported pollution events and contact proper authorities to ensure the issue is resolved as quickly and effectively as possible.
As we continue to fight for a safe, pollution-free Potomac River, we urge the public to help us with our mission. Please report pollution events to your riverkeeper, support our campaign by donating or volunteering, and ensure your safety out on the water by checking the SwimGuide smartphone application during our monitoring season to get up to date information on bacteria levels in the water, and always be sure to wash thoroughly with soap and warm water after contact with the river. As you are out enjoying the river, which is is often safe to do, know that your Riverkeepers at PRKN are working hard every day to ensure that we won’t have to worry about these pollution events in the future, and you can instead use your time on the water to enjoy the sunshine, fresh air, and the beautiful scenery the “Nation’s River” has to offer.