Swimmable Potomac River Campaign

Photo by Alan Lehman

Let’s Swim in the Potomac!

The Swimmable Potomac Campaign is designed to ensure that the Potomac River is safe for swimming, paddling, stand-up paddleboarding, and other forms of recreation that involve direct contact with the water. Thousands of people every year go out on the Potomac in a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard, or for an open water swim. The numbers continue to grow as our waterfront rebounds and as water quality improves. Our goal at Potomac Riverkeeper Network is to make it safe for all those water enthusiasts to enjoy the beauty of the Potomac River without risking getting sick and to encourage establishing public access beaches, including in Washington, DC, where they are now banned so that our Swimmable Potomac River can be enjoyed by all.

To accomplish this ambitious objective, we have four principal strategies:

  1. Community science water quality monitoring — Led by Dean Naujoks, Potomac Riverkeeper, an extremely dedicated and well-trained group of volunteer community scientists take samples every week from May through September at 29 public access points along the Potomac – in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. In 2023, we expanded the scope of our sampling downriver as far as Colonial Beach, VA. The volunteers sample for E.coli bacteria, an indicator of fecal contamination in the river that can make recreational users sick. The day the samples are gathered, they are tested either at our floating laboratory aboard the Sea Dog, anchored in Maryland at National Harbor or at our lab at the Potomac River Fisheries Commission in Colonial Beach. The results are posted publicly every week to the Chesapeake Data Explorer, a centralized data hub that is publically available as well as an easy-to-use smartphone app called Swim Guide and on social media so that people will know when and where it is safe to use the water.

  2. Increased public awareness of the sources of pollution and how to stop themWe have also published two reports based on the results of our water quality monitoring. Very few people are aware that raw sewage is dumped into the Potomac River every time it rains in DC and along the Alexandria waterfront. We want to raise awareness of this public health issue and engage the public in supporting investments in the solutions that are already underway to store sewage after it rains so that it can be treated.

  3. Advocacy to end routine dumping of raw sewage into the river — In 2018, we achieved a major victory in obtaining legislation in VA requiring Alexandria to stop 95% of its raw sewage discharges into the Potomac River, which it will achieve in partnership with AlexRenew by building storage tunnels under Old Town Alexandria. We established another critical success in 2023, when Alexandria agreed, as a result of our lawsuit against it, to remediate decades-long discharges of coal tar pollution into the Potomac River near Founders Park in the city.

    Our goal is to achieve 96% reduction in sewer overflows into the Potomac River by 2030. DC Water is poised to achieve this goal through investment in green infrastructure in Rock Creek and a storage tunnel in Georgetown. We will engage fully in the development of the sewage reduction plan to ensure that it will make it safe for everyone in and around DC to safely enjoy the river.

    We are also engaging with local communities and governments to diminish wastewater polluting the river. We have a pending lawsuit in St. Mary’s County, MD to achieve that goal; we are also proud of recent progress we have made in Colonial Beach to heighten awareness and to encourage civic action regarding the town’s wastewater practices.

  4. End the ban on swimming in DC — Swimming has been illegal in the Potomac in DC since the 1970s when the river was filled with untreated or inadequately treated sewage on a daily basis. Now, as PRKN’s community science water quality monitoring program shows, it is often safe to go into the water — yet swimming is still always illegal. We will seek a firm commitment by DC to lift the ban on swimming in the Potomac and to identify safe swimming access points so that everyone can enjoy safe open water swimming in the Potomac. To join PRKN in asking Mayor Bowser to lift the ban on swimming in DC, please sign this petition.

Swimmable Potomac Report 2022 slide