Robert Dreher Urges DC City Council to lift ban on swimming in the Potomac

Robert Dreher, PRKN Acting Vice President of Programs & Litigation, recently testified before the DC City Council to urge them to lift the outdated and unnecessary ban on swimming in the Potomac.

Testimony of Robert Dreher
Acting Vice President for Programs and Litigation, Potomac Riverkeeper Network
B24-0617, The District Waterways Management Authority Establishment Act of 2022

Good afternoon.  My name is Bob Dreher, and I am the Acting Vice President for Programs and Litigation for the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network is a nonprofit organization founded in 2000 to protect the public’s right to clean water in the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.  Over the past 20 years, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network has used the citizen enforcement provisions of the Clean Water Act to bring countless polluters into legal compliance while eliminating sources of pollution ranging from untreated sewage to coal ash waste, oil, and toxic chemicals.  We also engage our communities in grassroots volunteer efforts and educational opportunities, including RiverPalooza paddles, the RioPalooza bilingual celebration, and Water Wednesday educational webinars, that bring together thousands of people to learn about and celebrate our rivers. 

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network strongly supports the objectives of the District Waterways Management Authority Establishment Act of 2022 (District Waterways Act).  The bill would establish a Waterways Management Authority and an advisory Commission to comprehensively plan for, manage and promote the diverse uses of and access to the District of Columbia’s waters.  The Potomac Riverkeeper welcomes this long-overdue attention to the immense public value of the Potomac River and the Anacostia River.  

The Potomac River has been called “the Nation’s River,” and is a priceless scenic and recreational amenity for the District of Columbia and other communities along the river.  President Lyndon Johnson declared that the Potomac “should serve as a model for scenic and recreation values for the entire country.”  Fifty years ago, when the Clean Water Act established the goal of fishable, swimmable waterways for every American, the Potomac River was heavily polluted.  Since that time, however, the Potomac has enjoyed a slow, steady recovery.  Today, the Potomac serves as a drinking water supply for over 6 million people while tens of thousands of people annually fish, swim, boat and play on the river.  People are returning to the river in record numbers, waterfront revitalization is booming, and we are making steady progress in cleaning up the Potomac.

Unfortunately, public enjoyment of the Potomac in the District is restricted by the city’s long-standing, and we believe outdated, prohibition on swimming in the river.  In 1971, the year before the Clean Water Act was enacted, Washington, D.C. banned swimming in District waters due to the city’s aging sewer system that routinely discharged over 2 billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater every year into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and Rock Creek. Today, Washington, DC is the only major city in America to completely ban swimming due to public health risks linked to sewage pollution.

Ironically, this ban remains at a time when our river is beginning to heal and water quality is improving. The DC government, DC Water and the city’s residents are investing billions of dollars to implement the Clean Rivers Project, a massive upgrade of the sewer system that is slated to reduce overflows by 96% when it’s completed in 2030. The City of Alexandria is on schedule to meet a 2025 legislative deadline to upgrade its sewers and reduce sewage overflows dramatically, a direct result of Potomac Riverkeeper legislative advocacy. When these projects are completed, the District’s swim ban will seem like a relic of the past.

Indeed, although there remain hot spots of pollution that require further cleanup, many places along the Potomac are already safe for swimming.  In 2019, the Potomac Riverkeeper initiated our “Swimmable Potomac” campaign in conjunction with our Community Science Water Quality Monitoring Program. Water samples collected weekly by volunteers are analyzed at our Tier-III certified lab on our flagship research vessel, Sea Dog. We now have three years’ worth of data, and our sampling program, expanded to more than 20 sampling locations, includes dozens of partner organizations, and spans 60 miles along the river.  Our Swimmable Potomac Report 2022, available at, details our findings that many areas along the Potomac, including areas within and near the District, are generally safe for swimming.  Our report identifies 6 locations near the City that, based on public access and water quality, could serve as public beaches, enhancing recreational opportunities for thousands of District residents.  (We did not evaluate currents or other public safety issues).

A hundred years ago, more than 20,000 people a day used to swim at the Tidal Basin and Arlington Beach, but those beaches, which were available only to white people, were closed in the 1920’s in part because some members of Congress did not want to open up swimming opportunities to people of color.  We hope that the planning authorized by this legislation will embrace our vision of a near future where safe swimming areas are established along the Potomac so that everyone can use and enjoy this wonderful public resource, the Nation’s River.  

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network looks forward to working with the Waterways Management Authority, the Commission and this Committee to help achieve that vision. 

Thank you.