News & Politics

For the First Time in a Decade, the Potomac River’s Health Is in Decline

Swimming and fishing are forbidden.

Photograph by Evy Mages

For the first time in ten years, the Potomac River is more polluted than it was two years ago. According to the Potomac River “Report Card” the Potomac Conservancy releases every two years, the health of the river has declined from a “B” to a “B-” rating.

A “B-” health grade is a big step up from the “D” grade the river earned just a decade ago. But while the Conservancy’s report describes the river as “on the mend,” it’s “not in the clear”—and still unsafe for swimming or fishing. “Stalled progress could signal a dangerous reversal in course for the river’s health if threats aren’t addressed,” the report says.

Those threats include polluted stormwater from urban and suburban areas, which is the fasting growing cause. The problem has been exacerbated by deforestation and urban sprawl combined with higher-than-usual precipitation. The Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks also have “worrying negative impacts” for the river, a PR rep for the Conservancy said.

To get the river’s health trajectory back on track, the report has five main recommendations: Invest in clean water as a public health priority; protect healthy forests; plant streamside trees to collect runoff; defend and strengthen laws that protect waterways; and plan river-friendly communities.

Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.