Life on the River: The Potomac’s Watchdog

Naujoks, 51, is used to challenge. It’s part of the job as a riverkeeper.

Dean Naujoks. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Shortly after Dean Naujoks became the Potomac riverkeeper in 2015, he set out to kayak almost the entire 383-mile stretch. Two weeks into what would be a three-week paddle, the effects of Hurricane Joaquin blew him temporarily out of the water.

“The river was six feet above normal, and it seemed like I was doing 30 miles an hour on Class V rapids,” Naujoks recalls. “I got stranded on Hains Point and had to take my kayak and strap it to a fence and walk up the point in waist-deep water.”

Naujoks, 51, is used to challenge. It’s part of the job as a riverkeeper.

“What we do is we work to enforce clean-water laws,” says Naujoks. “We find the biggest polluters and work to get them into compliance.”

One example: Alexandria’s combined sewer system. “They were going to fix three discharge points for combined sewage and stormwater, but a fourth one dumping 70 million gallons of sewage a year upstream from Old Town, they weren’t going to fix that one until at least 2040. We worked with lawmakers on a bill that forced them to do it by 2025.”

Before becoming the Potomac’s watchdog, the Pennsylvania native was a riverkeeper in North Carolina.

“A lot of people think there’s someone in a state capacity making sure these guys aren’t breaking the laws,” he says. “But they don’t have enough staff. And there’s a lot of political pressure. So it’s not surprising to us that we are constantly finding problems.

“This day and age, when we have an EPA that is not doing any enforcement work and state agencies are reluctant to drop the hammer, we are the last line of defense. I’ve been doing this for 19 years, and I feel our work has never been more important.”

This article initially appeared in our September, 2020 issue. To view the entire guide to the Potomac, click here.

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Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986 as an editorial intern, and worked her way to the top of the masthead when she was named editor-in-chief in 2022. She oversees the magazine’s editorial staff, and guides the magazine’s stories and direction. She lives in DC.