Potomac River threatened by pollution, Congress, new report says

A new report named the Potomac the nation’s most endangered river, saying it is threatened by nutrient and sediment pollution that lowers the quality of drinking water and kills marine life and will only get worse if Congress rolls back regulations in the Clean Water Act.

“America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” the annual report from the nonprofit advocacy group American Rivers, is to be released early Tuesday. It notes what local friends of the Potomac have said for years: that urban development is funneling tons of polluted rainwater to the river, that chemical fertilizer and manure from farms make matters worse, and that wastewater overflowing from sewers, along with pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets, contribute to dead zones in which marine life dies and might cause fish to switch sexes. Some male fish in the river mysteriously have eggs.

Just as troubling, said American Rivers President Bob Irvin, is a range of proposals by House Republicans to strike various provisions from the Clean Water Act as it nears its 40th anniversary in October.

The Senate has blocked many of these efforts, but advocates worry about future attempts. If Congress ends regulations that help clean the Potomac’s head­waters and limit pesticide use by municipalities and farms, “not only will the Potomac River suffer tremendous harm but other streams and rivers as well,” Irvin said.

The report placed the Potomac atop nine other rivers nationwide, including the Green River, the largest feeder to the Colorado River, the Chattahoochee River, which runs by Atlanta, and the Missouri River, which flooded the Midwest last year.

Critics of the report, some of them river stewards, said they appreciate American Rivers’ attempt to call attention to the river’s problems and looming congressional fights over regulation. But they said there’s no scientific basis to say one large American river is more endangered than another.

Last year, the Susquehanna River topped the list of 10 most endangered rivers because of controversial drilling in Pennsylvania that uses hydraulic fracturing, employing high-pressure water blasts and chemicals to fracture shale rock and release natural gas.

The Mississippi River is beset by polluted runoff from industrial agriculture, and the Chattahoochee, also on the endangered list, easily has issues equal to the Potomac’s, advocates say.

Owing to its location, the Potomac is sometimes called “the nation’s river.” Five million people rely on it for drinking water.

Since the 1960s, measurements by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin have shown its water quality improving. ICPRB spokesman Curtis Dalpra noted that the largemouth bass fishery has rebounded in some sections of the river and that sewage treatment plants are using sophisticated processes to remove nutrients or are slated for upgrades.

The American Rivers report acknowledges the improvements but lashes out at Congress, labeling attacks on the Clean Water Act “relentless” and calling on lawmakers to shelve legislation that would roll back clean water regulations.

American Rivers is not alone in its concern.

Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy, said the river cannot improve if the federal government backs off its role in regulating pollution. “This is the nation’s capital,” Belin said. “We should be able to have a river where it’s not illegal to go swimming,” as it is in the District, and “where it’s not recommended to not eat the fish you catch.”

Ed Merrifield, the Potomac Riverkeeper, said the Potomac is not as dirty as it was before the Clean Water Act became law, but it is hardly clean. Its water quality received a D in a report card last year by EcoCheck, a University of Maryland and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partnership.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has invested heavily to stop sewage overflows, but they continue, and the sewage plant sends out skimmers periodically to remove trash on the river surface, and the river water is unhealthful, Merrifield said.

“For years, we’ve been reading about the intersex in the fish, up to 80 percent in the places they’ve tested for it,” Merrifield said. “Yet there hasn’t been much of any action on this in Congress, and it’s very sad because all our drinking water comes from here. The best and safest drinking water comes from healthy rivers and streams.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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