Rock Creek runs through the heart of the city. But it’s a fragile treasure.
A creek runs through it, through my life and my city. Rock Creek, named for the boulders that rise from its sandy bottom like the backs of big hippos, starts in Maryland and winds through the District toward the Potomac River.
At dawn most mornings I cycle through the hills and down along the creek. My three daughters and their buddies play along its sandy beaches, hop from rock to rock to the islands in the middle, sun themselves on the boulders. My daughter Rosie and I took a big green trash bag down to the creek one Saturday and picked up cups and cans and bottles along the shoreline.
Bella, our black Labrador retriever, learned to swim and launch herself off the banks to fetch sticks during our weekly walks along the creek.
For me, the creek and its paths have become a sanctuary that has fed my soul with magic moments on rainy days and moonlit nights. It is a place where I can get lost in place and time and thought.
One day in May a friend called to tell me not to take Bella to the creek. She'd heard that dead fish were showing up in the water. There might have been some kind of chemical spill.
News accounts said a pesticide had entered the creek near Brookville Road in Montgomery County and caused "an acute toxic kill" of fish through the District to the Potomac River. The creek was off-limits to people and pets.
I went down to the creek to see, leaving Bella at home. I descended to the pool below the bridge at the foot of Ross Drive. At first, it looked fine. The creek was clear. Sunlight reflected off the rocks on the bottom.
Then I started to see fish, floating in eddies, washed up on the banks of the poisoned waterway.
From Thompson's Boat House, where Rock Creek flows into the Potomac River, to Pierce Mill, park rangers saw dead shad, bass, and carp. From the dam up to the Mormon Temple they collected darters and minnows and other small fish.
"We saw plenty of fish swimming in circles," says park ranger Ken Ferebee. "It was obvious there was something wrong with their breathing."
Over the next few weeks, federal and local officials gathered water samples and fish carcasses and sent them to laboratories. They learned that a pesticide mix of cypermethrin, bifenthrin, and trioctyl trimellitate had been dumped in amounts strong enough to kill some 150,000 fish. The toxic mix, used to kill termites, isn't soluble in water, but it binds to sand and gravel. It attacks fish gills and wipes out the creek's insect life.
The feds had enough evidence to launch a criminal investigation headed by the Environmental Protection Agency. "We know where it got into the creek," says Scott West, head of the EPA's criminal investigation division. "How and who did it is a matter of investigation."
The pesticide seems to have found its way to Rock Creek from a small industrial park in Silver Spring. The strip along the lower end of Garfield Avenue is home to auto-body shops and lawn-care firms. Investigators executed a search warrant on a small lawn-care business but say they haven't found the culprit.
"It didn't take much," says Park Service resource specialist Bill Yeaman. "It could have been somebody cleaning out a bucket."
The pesticides weren't supposed to be toxic to humans. What about dogs, I wondered.
The last two weeks of May brought a brief rainy season. Two gully washers turned Rock Creek muddy brown and flushed out the chemicals, or so I figured.
The last day of the month dawned crisp and cool with a sky so blue it seemed as if it had been scrubbed and buffed during the night. Bella and I couldn't wait any longer.
At noon we went to Rock Creek. I stopped at the ranger station to ask if the creek was clean. "We've had two good rains," a police officer said. "I would say it's okay."
When Bella and I started our walk, I kept her by my side. The creek looked pristine. It nattered its way through a series of tiny waterfalls.
I let Bella get her paws wet but stopped her from swimming. Then I saw yellow signs on the other side of the creek that said NO SWIMMING, NO FISHING, NO WADING, NO PETS.
I took Bella home and hosed her down.
I called the Rock Creek Park offices and asked Bob Ford, the park's natural-resource manager, if my dog was in trouble. Probably not from the pesticide, he told me, but perhaps from worse stuff. Every time Bella takes a dip in Rock Creek, she's likely to come in contact with "gunk" from runoff and maybe raw sewage that seeps through leaky pipes or flows through storm drains after a heavy rainfall.
"It's a fact of life for urban streams," he said.
"I'm kind of sorry I called," I said.
"Better to know the truth," he said.
The truth about Rock Creek is that it's becoming less of a Maginot line between the races and classes in Washington. Come to the park on a weekend when Beach Drive is closed to traffic and you'll see all ages and colors, all enjoying the creek and its valley.
The sad truth that I learned from the insecticide spill is that Rock Creek is vulnerable and fragile. And dirty—even when you can't see dead fish floating in the water.
Environmentalists with the Audubon Naturalist Society have offered to restock the creek with fish from nearby creeks. Park rangers are finding fish migrating back up the creek. A few bullhead catfish, eels, and large minnows avoided the toxins by swimming into deep holes. Still, it will take months for the pesticides to break down, and fish biologists say it could take years for Rock Creek to be healthy again. And there's still the chronic pollution from storm drains and sewers.
I realized that if Bella wants to be a water dog in Rock Creek, and my children want to play along the banks, I had better get involved in trying to fix the creek that runs through my life.
We've cleaned up the Potomac River and started on the Anacostia River. Why not Rock Creek?