Swimmable Potomac River Campaign

Photo by Tusik Only


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/millions 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. It is the goal of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network to make it safe for all those water enthusiasts to enjoy the beauty of the Potomac River without risking getting sick.

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

  1. Community science water quality monitoring — Led by Dean Naujoks, Potomac Riverkeeper, an extremely dedicated and well-trained group of community scientists take samples every week from May through September at about a dozen public access points along the Potomac in and around DC. The volunteers sample for E. coli bacteria, an indicator of fecal contamination of the river that can make recreational users sick. The day the samples are gathered, they are tested at our floating laboratory aboard the Sea Dog, our research vessel. The results are posted publicly every week on 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 them — In addition to weekly water quality monitoring during the summer, we are publishing an annual report on the results of our water quality monitoring, including those water quality monitoring sites that are most frequently contaminated by E coli bacteria, where the contamination is coming from, and how it can be stopped. Very few people in DC are aware that raw sewage is dumped into the Potomac River every time it rains in DC. We want to raise awareness of this public health issue and engage the public to support investment in solutions.
  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 by 2025. 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.
  4. End the ban on swimming in DC — It has been illegal to swim in the Potomac in DC since the 1980s when the river was filled with untreated and inadequately treated sewage on a daily basis. Now, as PRKN’s citizen science water quality monitoring program shows, it is often safe to go into the water — yet swimming is still illegal. We will seek a firm commitment by DC to lift the ban on swimming in the Potomac by 2022, the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act.