When I was growing up, I was always one of those children entranced by water. After learning how to swim at a young age, I spent the summer enrolled in aquatics camps and dragging my parents to the local athletic club multiple times a week. Over the years, my adventurous spirit led me to pursue my love of nature through natural bodies of water. Backpacking trips always included a float in a river or a dip in a glacial lake. I even found myself trekking into the waves off the Oregon Coast, where water temperatures never reach welcoming temperatures. Last month, I was lucky to experience Myrtle Beach, in South Carolina, where I basked in the refreshing currents for hours.
A love for swimming and experiencing water is a widely popular cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, most individuals are not lucky enough to have access to water sources suitable for public use. As our world continually industrializes, natural bodies of water are increasingly exposed to harmful pollutants. Pollution is detrimental to the health of rivers, lakes, and oceans; it threatens natural ecosystems and poses a danger for human health. Surface water, encompassing almost 70 percent of water on earth, is frequently contaminated with nutrient pollution. Caused by animal manure, sewage treatment discharge, fertilizer, detergent, and stormwater runoff, nutrient pollution results in algae overgrowth. Not only is this harmful to human health, but it also damages the ecosystems of various plants and animals that live in freshwater environments.
In particular, the Potomac River has a history of struggling with pollution. The river’s water quality began to deteriorate at the start of the nineteenth century when mining and agricultural developments expanded upstream. Throughout history, various leaders have made efforts to restore the river. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson deemed the river a “national disgrace,” before signing the Clean Waters Restoration Act, which designated federal funds towards the development of sewage treatment plants. In 1972, the Clean Water Act led to the expansion of several more sewage treatment plants. Although progress has been made since its initial deterioration, the Potomac River remains incredibly vulnerable to a variety of harmful pollutants.
Fortunately, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network has been fighting against pollution since its establishment in 2000. With a mission to protect the public’s right to clean water, PRKN focuses on identifying pollution, fighting this pollution, and encouraging the community to engage with and appreciate the river. Much of the organization’s works is focused on holding major polluters, like power plants, manufacturing facilities, and coal-ash storage facilities, legally accountable for the pollution they produce. The organization’s efforts will be supplemented by the donation of the Sea Dog boat and the launch of the Swimmable Potomac Campaign.
In March, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network held a boat launch to signify the start of new monitoring practices. To expand their patrolling and water quality monitoring capacity, PRKN secured a donation of a 42-foot Custom Chesapeake Deadrise Powerboat called Sea Dog from a retired four-star U.S. Navy Admiral. Sea Dog’s primary functions will be to facilitate water quality monitoring on the Potomac River, increase the visibility of Potomac Riverkeeper on the water, and engage the public in conversations about the health of the river, human impact, and future opportunities for public stewardship.
In tandem with this monumental donation, the PRKN will launch a Swimmable Potomac Campaign using the new information that will be available as a result of the bacterial water quality monitoring program. The results from the bacterial monitoring program will be used to inform the public about when it is safe to go in the water – as well as when it is not – and push for more safe swimming days. In addition, the campaign will seek to have DC’s historic ban on swimming in the Potomac repealed while restoring swimmable use access.
If successful, the Swimmable Potomac Campaign will lift the ban on swimming and other direct water exposure activities in DC and also provide sufficient, timely information to the public about water safety that people can make good decisions about whether to go in the water.
Water is an essential element of human life. Our entire existence is reliant on water, and our daily lives are enhanced by the privilege of interacting with natural water sources. Thanks to the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, there is hope that Potomac River will make a full recovery from its polluted past, and be accessible to communities all across the watershed.