Ask the expert: Why isn’t the Potomac getting better, faster?

Team Potomac answers your questions

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We asked our Facebook followers to share with us their most pressing questions about the Potomac, and now we’re setting out to give you answers, starting with this question, submitted by Andrea:

Q: We have regulations through the EPA, river cleanups, and fundraisers, yet improvement for the Potomac River is slow moving. Why is that?

The Potomac River is great and complicated, like this question!

The good news is that things are moving in the right direction. Pollution levels in the Potomac River are the lowest they’ve been in decades. But, we have a long way to go before children can safely swim in our streams, fishermen can eat their catch, and you can drink water out of your tap without a Brita filter.

In short, there’s a lot to do, limited resources, and the biggest threat to the Potomac is a complex one to tackle.

1) Every action on land, for better or for worse, affects a river’s health.

Protecting and restoring the Potomac (or any river) isn’t just about the river itself. It’s about the thousands of streams and creeks that lead to the river and all of the land that drains water into those streams and creeks. 

This entire area is called a “watershed” or “river basin.” All water in the Potomac basin  — rainwater, snowmelt, stream water, spring water — ends up in the Potomac. Every action that affects the landscape of our region, from illegal dumping to construction to planting a tree, has an impact, good or bad, on the health of the waters that flow into feeder streams and the Potomac.

2) The sheer size of the Potomac region makes restoration difficult. 

The prescription is clear: to improve the health of the Potomac, we must improve the health of small streams and creeks that drain into the river. 

But that’s a tall order for the Atlantic Coast’s fourth largest river.

The Potomac river is huge, stretching 383 miles from the mountains of West Virginia, through the urban areas of DC, to the marshlands of southern Maryland. It’s the second largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. Over 6 million people live in the 14,670-square-mile watershed, which includes parts of four states (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia), and all of DC.

Land use decisions at every level — federal, state, and local — impact the health of the Potomac. With so many different interests and stakeholders involved, it’s a huge challenge to coordinate a massive, multi-state cleanup effort. 

3) The diversity of the Potomac’s landscape also presents challenges. 

We live in a truly awesome place. From forested mountains, to working lands, to urbanized city centers, the Potomac region has it all. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

Restoring a river is a complex scientific process, which, in the Potomac’s case, is made more complex by the diversity of the Potomac region. 

Rural areas, suburban towns, and urban cities all face different challenges that demand unique solutions. On working lands, farmers can reduce pollution by using Best Management Practices. In suburban areas, building up, not out, can protect healthy forests that deliver clean water to local streams. In cities, outdated infrastructure can be addressed through improvement projects and nature-based solutions, like rain absorbent pavements.

To restore the Potomac, it's necessary to address all of these challenges. 

4) There are some pollutants that will take decades to disperse.

Sediment pollution can take years and even decades to move through a river system, yielding a delay in observable improvements. “Legacy sediment” is sediment that is stored in streams or floodplains that is re-suspended, transported downstream, and redeposited during storms. Legacy sediment can carry with it other pollutants, like harmful toxins, PCBs, and phosphorus.

5) Traditional sources of pollution are being addressed, but a new threat is emerging. 

Historically, the three largest pollutants in the Potomac have been nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. Thanks in large part to the federal Clean Water Act and EPA-led Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, these three pollutants are on the decline in the Potomac, and the river is healthier than its been in decades.

But at the same time that we’ve been fighting these pollution sources, sprawl and unplanned development have lead to an increase in polluted runoff, the only growing source of pollution in the Potomac. The long-term threat to the river is harmful development, both urban and rural, which increases the amount of polluted runoff flowing into our local streams and then into the Potomac.

Each time it rains (or snows), that water rushes over the land, picking up dirt, oil, trash, pet waste, and toxic chemicals like pesticides. In an unaltered landscape, this water is re-absorbed into the ground and filtered by trees and plants. But when rainwater falls on roofs, driveways, or other hard surfaces, it isn’t absorbed. It collects pollution and flows into the nearest creek or storm drain. The majority of polluted runoff goes directly into our local streams.

As development around the region increases (throughout the Chesapeake Bay region, we lose 100 acres of forests per day), there are fewer trees to absorb pollution and more paved surfaces that prevent polluted water from filtering naturally through the ground. 

The good news is that river friendly growth — protecting tree canopy, installing things like permeable pavements, rain barrels, green streets, green roofs — is not only feasible, it’s economical, and a common sense solution to pollution. 

Become a clean water advocate in your community and speed up progress!

There’s a lot you can do to help the Potomac — recycle, conserve water, eat less meat. But your most powerful tool is your voice.

Local leaders need to hear from you. Help us strengthen local water protections and keep pollution out of local streams and drinking water sources. You can attend city or county council meetings, write to your state and local representatives, sign petitions, send emails, and make phone calls.

Taking a stand at the local level can lead to big results! 

In fact, right now Loudoun County, Virginia, and Frederick County, Maryland, are revising their respective county comprehensive plans, documents that will guide land and development decisions for decades to come.

Can we count on you to take a stand?

Yes, you can count on me to speak up for clean water.  Please email me alerts when I can take action.

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