In the early 2000s, I grew up kayaking, hiking, and rowing on and along the Potomac River. I remember feeling lucky to have access to my local river. I enjoyed watching the herons perch along the rocky banks, and paddling around the DC monuments after school with my friends and classmates. The river provided an incalculable benefit to living in this area.

The topic of DC waterways always evokes an emotional response from residents. Locals, who have grown up in the area since the 1970s and 80s, remember the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers as places to avoid as raw sewage, trash, algae blooms, and toxins ran unchecked through the water. Often, their eyes widen in horror at the prospect of ever being able to take a dip in the water. In 1971, lawmakers in DC placed a ban on swimming or wading in the Potomac, Anacostia or Rock Creek due to the pollution in the waters.

People walking on a dock

Photo Credit: DC Volunteer Water Quality Monitor, Anonymous, Fletcher’s Cove

Now, five decades after the ban, newer residents still have some reservations about recreating and eventually lifting the swimming ban in the three watersheds, but seem more amenable to the idea. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anacostia Riverkeeper reported that the Anacostia, Potomac, and Rock Creek saw increases in hiking, kayaking, and sailing during summer lockdowns. These waters became refuges for residents to escape the heat of summer and isolation.

A garden and a sign that reads "Clean Water Starts Here"

Photo Credit: The Alliance Staff, DC, A RiverSmart Home

Within the last few years, reporting by national and local news outlets, like NPR and DCist, indicate that years of advocacy and billions of dollars spent on projects to clean up the rivers are starting to pay off. Initiatives such as the DC Water Clean Rivers Project, which includes 18 miles of tunnels to hold sewage and stormwater excess during heavy rains, provide a big step forward. Without these tunnels, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) will occur more frequently. Treatment plants cannot process the inflow of sewage and stormwater runoff and are forced to dump this untreated water into local waterways. So far, there has been a 96% reduction in CSO volume since the project has begun. The tunnels are expected to be complete by 2030. Programs like RiverSmart Homes and other green infrastructure projects look to reduce stormwater runoff at the source. Projects such as rain gardens, bayscaping, permeable pavement, and rain barrels are offered at a reduced cost to DC residents. Even more exciting are the sightings of North American River Otter in the tidal basin area. River otters are a good indicator species of water quality due to how sensitive they are with pollution levels.

Trash on the ground after a storm

Photo Credit: The Alliance Staff, Potomac shoreline after a storm

Even with all the programs and progress DC has made, it remains an uphill battle to change decades-long perceptions of rivers. Pollution levels have been on the rise again due to increased rainfall and population density. Additionally, the change in pollution across the three river basins, Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek, have not been evenly distributed due to histories of racial inequity, population size, tidal flow, and number of outfalls along their banks. Fortunately, there is a simple way to address and educate community members about their watersheds. Provide residents direct access to the water quality data and opportunities to monitor the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek for themselves.

After getting my B.A in Environmental Studies, I spent the first year out of college, helping run a water quality monitoring program in Massachusetts. When my family and a few friends moved to the DC-Baltimore area, I returned to my childhood watershed to help coordinate volunteers for the DC Citizen Science Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program.

A person sitting by the water and writing, with the Washington Monument in the background

Photo Credit: The Alliance Staff, Columbia Island, Mt. Vernon Trail

The Alliance recently became involved in implementing the DC Citizen Science Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program, funded by DOEE. Alongside our partners at Anacostia Riverkeeper, Rock Creek Conservancy, and Audubon Naturalist Society, this project aims to provide up-to-date, weekly water quality data to visitors and residents during peak recreation months. Currently in the fourth year of the monitoring program, this remains the first effort to integrate community science water quality data to inform policy management and assessments into the District’s water quality plan.

Through this program, residents are able to be stewards of their local watershed by participating in a weekly water quality monitoring from May through September. Each Wednesday, volunteers visit 24 sites around DC to sample for air and water temperature, pH, turbidity, and E.coli. They also record the observed recreational uses of people at each site. The data is then processed by Anacostia Riverkeeper, and published by program partners on Fridays, so the public can make informed decisions about how and when they recreate on the Potomac, Rock Creek, and Anacostia. All data is published on social media, Water Reporter, and the Chesapeake Data Explorer, as well as compiled into an annual report. The report from the 2022 sampling season will be available late this fall, so be sure to sign up for the Alliance newsletter to be the first to know.

It is my hope that with time, and thanks to all the amazing programs like DC Water Clean Rivers project, RiverSmart Homes, and the DC Citizen Science Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program, residents can have better access to their own watersheds, and feel proud of them. The more residents that safely recreate, the more likely it is that they will promote stewardship actions, and advocate for their own waters. Additionally, long-term data collection gives us an opportunity to show enough water quality improvement that DC could finally lift the swimming ban, and allow everyone to fully appreciate their own waterways.