The Trump National Golf Club in Sterling poses one of the most dangerous threats to the quality of the Potomac River, according to a study published Tuesday by the Potomac Conservancy. The club’s move in 2011 to chop down 400 trees in order to give one of its courses unobstructed river views left a 1.5-mile stretch of riverfront without a single tree to cleanse groundwater or collect rainfall.
That gap is the longest treeless segment of the Potomac’s banks between the American Legion Bridge and Harpers Ferry, 55 miles upstream, says Hedrick Belin, the president of the Potomac Conservancy.
“There’s a big drinking straw that goes into the Potomac on that side of the river just down stream from the golf course,” says Belin. “It’s our drinking water.”
The knock on Trump National is part of a longer, biannual report about the overall health of Washington’s waterways, which, while still healthy in the farthest-flung exurbs, are in poor condition in DC and its immediate neighbors and deteriorating rapidly in suburbs like Loudoun County. The District’s sewer and stormwater infrastructure is badly aged, leading to frequent instances of human waste seeping into the city’s rivers. Burst pipes and sewer overflows—especially during storms—send 600 million gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac and 1.5 billion gallons into the Anacostia in an average year, the report finds. As a result, Washington’s rivers are dosed with toxic chemicals, heavy metal residue, pathogens, animal waste, and other nasty stuff.
“The DC infrastructure gets overwhelmed by too much water, and the safety valve is to release combined sewer overflow,” Belin says.
The Potomac Conservancy’s report attempts to tackle Washington’s grungy water supply in light of decades of anticipated development that could bring another 2.3 million residents to the Potomac watershed by 2040. Belin concedes that a booming population necessitate lots of new construction, but he cautions against too much sprawl. Instead, he says, municipalities should encourage buildings to install “green roofs” and use surfaces that conserve rainwater where it falls, rather than let it pick up debris and flow into the rivers and streams.
Even though water quality now is better further away from the region’s urban centers, outlying areas are on track to fall behind, the study finds. Loudoun County, the watershed’s fastest-growing jurisdiction, has suffered from declining water quality for more than two decades, with research conducted in 2009 finding that 78 percent of the county’s streams were distressed. It’s not just Trump’s golf course posing threats, either. The proposed Bi-County Parkway between Prince William County and Dulles International Airport would “irreversibly destroy parkland, open space, and rural areas.”
The Potomac Conservancy says it isn’t trying to block the region’s projected growth, but it would prefer to see it concentrated around what’s already constructed. “There’s nothing we can do about this increased population,” Belin says. “Where do we develop and how do we develop or redevelop? Directing to areas that are somewhat already built up.”
In fact, while the exurbs’ waterways are degrading, strongest improvements are being made where water quality is currently the poorest. The Potomac Conservancy gives ample credit to DC Water and its massive tunnel-boring machine “Lady Bird,” which is currently drilling under the bed of the Potmac to create a four-mile tunnel to handle the District’s runoff. The report also praises Fairfax County’s plan for the redevelopment of Tysons Corner into an actual city, with infrastructure plans that move away from retention basins and toward modern water-retention technologies.
“Lyndon Johnson called the Potomac a national disaster,” Belin says. “We’re saying let’s get ahead of it before it becomes too late to reverse the course.”
Read the full report below.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.