On the Potomac, Swimming in Risk
In Debating the River's Cleanliness, Confusion Wins

By David A. Fahrenthold and Ashlee Clark
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 14, 2007

Is it safe to swim in the Potomac River? No. Yes. Probably. Usually. Never.

This simplest of summer questions turns out to have a wide variety of answers, depending on who in the Washington area is answering. The District bans swimming. Prince George's County advises against it. But just upstream, Montgomery County says the river is generally safe.

Meanwhile, kayakers, sailors and others spend summer weekends on -- and in -- a river with levels of fecal bacteria that frequently exceed federal standards. Many of them say they've seen few official warnings about the danger.

This week, a proposal to hold a triathlon along the river provided a case study in the murky status of the Potomac's health. District officials approved the plan, but said they might cancel the swim course in the unlikely event that . . . it rains.

"It might not be safe to swim in every day, but it could be safe to swim in any day," said Charles Brodsky, organizer of the Nation's Triathlon, whose competitors will swim 1.5 kilometers -- about nine-tenths of a mile -- in the river Sept. 29.

The Potomac, placid as it looks from downtown Washington, poses a number of threats to swimmers. In some sections, rapids and strong currents can pull them under. The bottom is studded with broken glass, shopping carts and other debris. Less ominous, but sometimes harder to detect, is the threat posed by disease-causing bacteria in the water.

The Potomac is usually thought of as a place where pollution problems were beaten: For decades, it was used as a sink for raw sewage and toxic chemicals, until in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson called the river "a national disgrace." Since then, thanks in part to cleanups at sewage plants, the Potomac's water has become clearer, and wildlife such as largemouth bass and bald eagles are thriving.

But, despite this comeback, the river still has a stubborn problem with fecal bacteria. These microbes are found in both human and animal waste, and they can indicate the presence of pathogens that can cause infections, intestinal distress and other symptoms.

"If you had just flushed your toilet and all of a sudden became 6 inches tall, would you want to swim in . . . that water?" asked Ed Merrifield, an environmental activist whose title is Potomac Riverkeeper.

Some of these bacteria are from livestock farms in the Potomac's rural headwaters. Others come from the suburbs, where droppings from geese and household pets wash down with rainwater. In the District, an outmoded wastewater system -- now at the beginning of a 20-year cleanup plan -- still dumps raw sewage into Potomac tributaries during storms.

This pollution gets worse after a rain and better during dry periods. But in all, last year, 32.5 percent of the tests on a section of the Potomac in Washington found bacteria levels higher than the federal government deems safe for swimming.

To some environmental groups, this evidence closes the case: The Potomac is not a good place to submerge one's body.

"There is going to be raw sewage spilling into that river, and it's going to be there a while" after a rain, said Rebecca Wodder, president of the Washington-based activist group American Rivers. "You can't know when it's safe, as an individual, so we would recommend that you don't swim."

But the message is almost never this clear. Officials in the District and Maryland, which have jurisdiction over the river and decide these sorts of policies, display pervasive confusion about when and how people should be wary of the Potomac. So do some of the thousands of residents who row, paddle or ride on it.

In the District, for instance, swimming is both officially unsafe and, by virtue of a 1971 law, illegal. D.C. police harbor-patrol officers say that, when they encounter swimmers, they warn them to get out. But many users of the river say they weren't aware of the dangers.

"Is it safe to be on the Potomac? I'd have to say yes," said Dave Biss, who leads a group of kayakers called the Pirates of Georgetown on Thursday night paddles. He said he's been actually in the water on a nearly daily basis since 1994. "I have never been aware that the District of Columbia prohibits swimming in the river," Biss said.

In response to a reporter's inquiry, George Hawkins, acting head of the D.C. Department of the Environment, said his agency would examine whether its warnings were adequate.

Other local jurisdictions also appear to have done little to warn about the river's risks. In Prince George's, the official recommendation is not to swim, but "we don't have any signs out," said Paul Meyer, acting director of the county Division of Environmental Health.

In Montgomery, spokeswoman Esther Bowring said "the water should be safe for swimming," except after rainstorms. But she said the county was not aware of any tests to back that up. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment said the department also does not routinely test the Potomac for bacteria in Montgomery.

Instead of official warnings, those who use the river say they often rely on word of mouth -- warnings to avoid the river after big sewer overflows, tips from friends to plug up one's ears or nose before taking a run through Potomac whitewater. In many cases, this seems to work: Many people said they'd been taking dips in the Potomac for years with no problems.

"We kind of don't really think about it," said Mike Heinsdorf, 27, of Falls Church, who was preparing his small sailboat at a marina on Daingerfield Island, near Old Town Alexandria, one night this week.

But a few people do wind up with illnesses -- and a conviction that the river was to blame. One of them was in the same harbor as Heinsdorf: Mahmoud Lababidi, 23, of McLean felt sick after a day of tubing in the river two years ago.

"This [was] summer, and I got a cold," he said as he prepared to board a boat for an event organized by the Potomac River Sailing Association. "I didn't want to ever be in the water again."

One of the highest-profile tests of the river's safety is set to come in September, during the roughly 28 minutes triathletes will spend in the river before getting out at Washington Harbour in Georgetown. Brodsky's group had sought permission for a swim last year but were turned down because of pollution concerns.

Before this year's race, officials said, the Potomac will be intensively tested. If it shows unsafe levels of bacteria, or if there is a heavy rain, the swim might be replaced with a five-kilometer run.

If the race happens, it would be the first time since 1971 that someone swam a legal stroke in Washington's section of the river.

"I just think it's a great psychological boost for the city," said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who supports the triathlon plan along with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). "If we've gotten some time where we can swim in the Potomac, I think that ought to be publicized."

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