Swimming in Solitude (Safely)

Getting out to enjoy natural bodies of water has long been a staple of summer recreation. On an oppressively hot summer day, there is no better way to get outdoors and escape the heat than by taking a dip.

kid jumping into river

I have many fond memories of summer days spent swimming, tubing, wading, and just lounging in and around the rivers and lakes that I have been fortunate enough to live near. One reason I work to protect and conserve our natural waterways is so that everyone is afforded the same opportunity to create memories of their own. 

This summer is likely to be a little different from summers past. Many pools and beaches will likely remain closed this summer – and even those that are open may be too crowded to be enjoyed safely. While it has always been nice to enjoy the water out in the quiet of nature, this summer it will be particularly important to be able to enjoy the water while staying socially distant and safe. River recreation may just be the answer you are looking for – in your own kayak, or swimming hole, or favorite fishing spot. Be sure to bring a friend, because Covid-19 is not the only hazard out there, but find a peaceful spot with cool, clean water and enjoy!  

That’s what I’m doing. I just went canoeing through the wetlands of Mattawoman Creek; I am planning to kayak on Mallows Bay next week; and I am making reservations to visit the Shenandoah River at the end of June to take a canoe trip. And those are just the trips in a boat! I’m also planning to seek out the best riverside beaches and swimming holes everywhere I go.

Other than decent weather and sunscreen, the main thing I need to enjoy a visit to the river is clean water. It doesn’t have to be pristine for me to enjoy it because the rivers in this area are often a little muddy, especially after it rains, but a day in the water shouldn’t result in stomachache or worse.  That’s why Potomac Riverkeeper Network has ramped up its Swimmable Potomac Campaign.

We want it to be fun and safe to go in the water.  

Currently, more than one billion gallons of raw sewage are discharged every year into the Potomac from combined sewer overflows, which occur whenever it rains hard enough to exceed the capacity of the pipes. Increasing development has compounded these issues by creating more impervious surfaces, resulting in pollution runoff into waterways.

While there are many positive initiatives going on within DC that have resulted in noticeably cleaner water in recent years, we still have a long way to go in cleaning up the Potomac. One of the ways we are addressing these issues is through our Swimmable Potomac campaign. The primary goal of this campaign is to improve the water quality in the Potomac in order to sufficiently support swimming and other recreation. 

In 2019, we succeeded in getting legislation in Virginia to require Alexandria to capture and treat 96% of its combined sewage and stormwater by 2025. Alex Renew is taking the lead in the construction of storage tunnels that will allow the sewage to be stored until it can be treated before discharge into Oronoco Bay. This year, we are advocating for measures that will be similarly stringent in the DC Waters Clean Rivers Project, which is scheduled for completion by 2030. There are big decisions to be made this year by DC Water and the US EPA. We will need your voice to add to our scientific analysis and advocacy to ensure that smart investments will be made to protect public health.

But we aren’t waiting until 2025 or later to let you know whether it is safe to go in the water. With the help of our highly skilled and trained volunteers, our citizen science water quality monitoring program is testing the water every week this summer for E. coli and other pollution that could make you sick. We post the results every Thursday evening or Friday morning on SwimGuide, a user-friendly smartphone app that tells you at a glance whether the water is safe for recreation.

Through continued monitoring and analysis of water quality and stopping pollution when we find it – with your help – we will make the Potomac swimmable once again.