Swimmable Potomac River Campaign

Photo by Tusik Only

Let’s Swim in the Potomac!

PRKN’s Swimmable Potomac Campaign seeks to ensure that the Potomac River is safe for all forms of water-based recreation and that river access to swimming is provided for all. Thousands every year enjoy the Potomac in a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard, or for an open water swim. The numbers swell as we reclaim our waterfronts and as water quality improves.  But the water is sometimes still too polluted for safe recreational use, swimming has been banned in DC waters since 1971, and there are no public swimming beaches in or around DC.  Potomac Riverkeeper Network wants to make swimming in the Potomac River safe and accessible to everyone in and around DC.

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

  1. Monitor and report on water quality — Since 2019, Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks has led a dedicated and well-trained group of community scientists who take weekly water samples at public access locations on the Potomac River from May through September, the summer recreation season. The volunteers collect water samples, which are tested for E. coli bacteria the same day at our floating lab aboard the Sea Dog, our research vessel. Those results are shared with the public every week on Swim Guide and on social media so that people will know when and where it is safe to recreate.
  2. Increase public awareness of pollution sources and how to stop them – We will release a water quality monitoring report: analyzing which of our test sites are most frequently contaminated by E. coli bacteria, where the contamination is coming from, and how it can be stopped. Very few people know that raw sewage is dumped into the Potomac River every time it rains. Aging infrastructure also causes leaks from broken sewer lines. Pet waste left to wash into streams is also a big problem we can easily solve together.  We want to engage the public to support investment in solutions.
  3. Ensure that DC and Alexandria end raw sewage dumping– PRKN was instrumental in passing a law in Virginia requiring Alexandria to stop 95% of its raw sewage discharges into the Potomac River by 2025. We are keeping a close watch on  DC Water’s progress in completing its Clean Rivers Project, which is required by court order to reduce raw sewage discharges by 96% by 2030. DC Water’s plan relies on a combination of huge underground water storage tunnels and investment in green infrastructure projects in the Rock Creek watershed.
  4. End the ban on swimming in DC — Swimming has been illegal in the Potomac in DC since 1971, when the river was plagued with sewage and toxic chemicals.  Passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 led to gradually improving water quality, and our community science monitoring shows that the Potomac in DC is often clean enough to swim at public access points such as the Tidal Basin, Hains Point and Fletcher’s Cove. PRKN will mark the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in 2022 by seeking a formal commitment by Mayor Bowser and the DC Council to lift the ban on swimming in the Potomac and to work with the National Park Service to identify safe places for people to swim.