Is it Safe to Swim?

I’ve been working to protect rivers, lakes, and coastal waters for more than 30 years now, and the question that people most often ask about those waters is whether it is safe to swim.  That’s because people love to go in the water and always have since the beginning of time.  Some people think it has to do with reliving the time in the womb. I can’t really say, but there is something so appealing about going into a clear, clean swimming hole for a dip that people just can’t resist, especially on a hot summer day. So they do it, whether it is safe or not. That’s why just saying, please don’t swim is not good enough. Yet, that’s exactly what DC does. It bans swimming – except for certain types of special events approved in advance – but that doesn’t help the person who is out at the river and really wants to take a dip, or a paddleboarder who falls in, or a kayaker who rolls or turns over unintentionally. None of those people is protected by a ban on direct contact with the water.  It doesn’t work.  We have to make it safe for people to go in the water.

That’s why the Potomac Riverkeeper has launched a Swimmable Potomac Campaign. We want to protect the public’s right to swim, or paddle, or paddleboard, or wade – or whatever they want to do to cool off or have fun this summer in the Potomac. But we don’t want people to get sick. So we have started monitoring the water for the bacteria that can make people sick. We are working with a consortium of groups led by the Anacostia Riverkeeper to monitor the Potomac within DC and have launched our own effort to start monitoring the Potomac outside of DC. We have trained volunteers and set up a floating lab on our new research vessel, Sea Dog, which is docked at the marina at National Harbor free of charge, courtesy of the Peterson family, who own National Harbor.

We are collecting water quality samples every Wednesday or Thursday, incubating them to let the bacteria grow, analyzing the results, and posting them every Friday by 5 pm on a smart phone app called Swim Guide, so that you will know whether the water is safe. Swim Guide is very easy to use. It has a map of all the access points that are monitored with green or red.  That’s where we post our results. There is one caveat though. If it rains on Thursday or Friday, I wouldn’t recommend swimming, no matter what the data show. District of Columbia and Alexandria still have combined sewers that dump raw sewage into the rivers when it rains. And stormwater also carries pet waste and other contaminants into the rivers when it rains.  Depending on the timing of our monitoring, we might not catch the results of a recent rainfall.  So check Swim Guide, make sure it hasn’t rained on Thursday or Friday, and then you’ll know that it is generally safe to swim.

There are also several special opportunities to swim this summer where Potomac Riverkeeper is monitoring and, of course, our RiverPalooza events where you can paddle, canoe, or snorkel with the Riverkeepers. I will be out there myself for the first event, Women on the Water, on June 14th. Please come join me!