My first experience with the Potomac was in the summer of 1959 when my wife and I bought property in the southern part of Fairfax County on Mason Neck. We began to spend a lot of time on the river, exploring its nooks and crannies in our Whaler. We couldn't help but marvel at the beauty of the lower Potomac's miles of sandy beaches, mainly untouched and undeveloped. The shoreline looked as if we had just stepped back in time more than 200 years and were seeing the same landscape as our forefathers.
But toward the end of that first summer we could also see traces of green algae on our nice sandy beaches. Naive as we were, we were told this was a "natural occurrence," and it "wasn't much of a problem." After we started living year-round on Mason Neck, we found the "little green problem" of the late summer was really a problem of the first magnitude, and it wasn't "natural." By the first of July, the river had great floating mats of blue-green algae, and it stayed that way until the first of October. Winds would blow the mats to the shore; there they would dry, stinking in the sunlight. When we motored up near Georgetown, we found that there even algae wouldn't grow. The river, filthy with feces and discarded condoms, was clearly a mess.
The main sources of the Potomac's distress were the raw sewage bypassed into the river by overloaded sewage treatment plants and the effluent discharged from poorly operated and maintained treatment plants. Little political leadership or technical direction had been given to control of our sewage system. The problem was not created by modern technology, but by the lack of it and a lack of vision and proper supervision.
In fact, most of our national and local political leaders saw the river's function as a sewer. For them, the Potomac River stopped at the 14th Street bridge, and no one dared go below that line.
But in 1965 another man, who also took occasional cruises in his yacht up and down the river, began to see the Potomac as something other than a sewer. Perhaps President Johnson, the yachtsman in question, perceived the tremendous asset and playground the river could be if we would use our technology and American "can-do-ism" to clean it up. Certainly his heart was in the right place when he announced we were going to clean up the Potomac so we could swim in it.
But, in fact, all during the late '60s the river got worse. I remember a party in our backyard joined by an uninvited guest -- a mile-long stinking mat of dead yellow and brown algae that came floating down the river and blew in on our shore. About the same time, Lady Bird Johnson donated a floating fountain that shot high columns of Potomac River water skyward off the tip of Hains Point. It was a lovely fountain, but it occasionally had to be turned off for fear that high winds whipping through its water plume would douse National Airport with cholera germs, which might then be spread far and wide by air travelers.
Not that there weren't some efforts to do something about the mess. In late 1969, after four and a half years of haggling, the Potomac River Conference, made up of the local jurisdictions and what is now the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed on the long-range water quality standards for the river that came to be known as the Potomac River Standards. These standards were EPA's major contribution, for they required installation of advanced waste treatment systems in the sewer plants. The new technology achieves a high degree of removal of organic pollutants from human waste and removes nutrients such as phosphorus that serve as the main fertilizer for the river's algae.
Also in 1969 the environmental movement began to get underway. The movement then encompassed people who were interested in using our technology and skills to solve environmental problems, not just romance them. It also had some "no growthers" such as the Maryland Environmental Coalition group, who were less interested in solving the sewage pollution problem than in using it as a mechanism to stop growth, and thus weren't keen on building and expanding new plants. And there were, fortunately, a few solution-oriented people such as Virginia governor Linwood Holton who believed that growth and pollution control were not mutually contradictory. Holton and others were convinced American technology can solve the problem if we have the political will to let it.
Something had to be done: when the 1970s rolled around the lower Potomac had become a tidal cesspool. Suspended in its waters was more raw sewage than the river had had to absorb in 1932, where there were no sewage treatment plants in the area. The Fairfax Sewer Fiasco
Frequent discharges into the river of raw sewage before it was processed by the sewage treatment plants (the "bypassing" carper) first brought attention to the seriousness of Fairfax County's troubles. A heavy dew or light rain would cause bypassing of raw sewage from the Little Hunting Creek Plant, the Dogue Creek Plant and the Westgate Plant in Fairfax County, as well as the Alexandria Plant, whose biggest user was Fairfax County. Detailed studies of this situation were eventually made by the Fairfax County Federal Citizens Association and the Mason Neck Citizens Association, whose area included miles of Potomac shoreline. It came to light that Fairfax County had illegally overloaded its sewage plants emptying into the Potomac; they were discharging 80 percent above their allowed pollutant load.
As the full story began to unfold, even the political leadership of the county could hardly believe the dimensions of the Fairfax sewer mess. In June 1970 the Virginia State Water Control Board imposed a moratorium on new sewer hookups in the county. The Northern Virginia builders got Fairfax County placed under a court order to upgrade and improve its sewage system immediately -- at the county's expense without federal grant funds. The court also ordered installation of the new technologies in the overloaded treatment plants: pure oxygen systems and chemical additions to accelerate the removal of pollutants, including the phosphorus that had been so troublesome.
As a result -- and much to the marvel of everyone -- the overloaded Fairfax plants really started to work. Furthermore, Fairfax County instituted maintenance on its sewer collection system and discovered sewer manways eroded away, sewer lines caved in, and creeks that ran into lines that had been left unmaintained for years. To the county's credit, over the next few years Fairfax transformed the worst sewer overload situation in Virginia into a model for what new technology and proper management of a sewer system could do. Maryland's Mess
About 1970, the Montgomery and Prince George's Counties sewer agency, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, was operating its Piscataway plant in such a fashion that Piscataway Bay, on the Maryland side of the Potomac across from Mount Vernon, was a stinking mess of algae. Many of the WSSC sewer lines had been so poorly constructed and installed that water leaked into the lines along with the sewage, overloading the sewer lines themselves and adding to the flows at both the Piscataway and Blue Plains sewage plants. Ultimately these plants became so overloaded that moratoriums -- of a sort -- were established.
Maryland's WSSC was the major user of the region's large Blue Plains sewage plant, which was operated by the District of Columbia. Each of the regional users of this large sewage plant was allocated a share of the plant's capacity. As a result of investigations by the Virginia State Water Control Board, WSSC was found to be using more than its share of the treatment capacity at the Blue Plains plant and was the cause of serious overloading problems there in 1971 and 1973.
A classic case of WSSC sewer-line overload was just off the Cabin John Parkway. There the WSSC manholes were so highly overloaded that even on dry days they performed like "Old Faithful" for Maryland commuters as they drove to and from Washington. These geysers spouted one to three million gallons a day of raw sewage into the Cabin John Creek about a mile and a half from the Potomac and not far above the Little Falls water supply intake for the District. The Georgetown Gap
In early 1971, Jeff Gorman, a resident of the District of Columbia, who heard there was a "raw sewage" problem in the Georgetown area, went to see for himself. What he saw -- and wrote up in a detailed report -- was a half-mile-long missing section, or gap, of sewer pipe seven feet in diameter! He sent his report to Gilbert Hahn of the District's City Council, who gave the report the back of his hand, asserting that "completion of the missing sewer section might interfere with the Three Sisters Bridge," a scheme that had been under study for years and that was subsequently scrapped. Too bad the City Council did not read the report -- they would have found that the sewer pipe had already been laid in that area and was well past the bridge site.
The "Georgetown Gap," as it became known, was one of the most incredible pieces of nonsense that I ever saw on the Potomac. A half-mile-long section was missing from just above Key Bridge to the vicinity of Thompson's Boathouse upstream of the Kennedy Center. This incomplete sewer pipe, which ran northwest on the District-Maryland side and then crossed over to serve Virginia, drained the suburbs' most affluent areas -- McLean, Potomac, the upper part of Montgomery County, Tysons Corner, Reston, Dulles Airport. Each day up to 15 million gallons or more of raw sewage (equivalent to sewage from 150,000 people) boiled forth out of the Georgetown Gap directly into the river.
In the summer of '71 I remember taking Washington Post reporter Bill Curry on one of many such boat trips to show the abuses firsthand. It was a quiet morning, and as we pulled away from the Georgetown Gap and into the river, we floated downstream directly in front of the Kennedy Center. At that point there was an eddy where most of the Georgetown Gap stuff settled out on the bottom of the river. The water bubbled with sewer gases rising from the decomposing solids. It was as if we had put our national cultural center on the Potomac's shores, and then, to show our real mentality, complemented it with a pile of decomposing sludge as its steps.
I will never forget the scene in the office of the governor of Virginia as I tried to explain the Georgetown Gap to Linwood Holton. The governor could not conceive that people were stupid enough to do such a thing, and he finally took a helicopter ride over the river to see for himself. There was the gap in all its glory. After that, the political will of the governor's office was four-square behind the Water Control Board, and it was "have at them until you get the problem solved." The Blue Plains Blues
Even though the Blue Plains sewage Treatment plant is located in and operated by the District of Columbia, it also serviced the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. The WSSC handled Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland and Dulles Airport, Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia. The District and Maryland were the plant's biggest customers with Virginia providing only about 5 percent of its flow. Treating the waste of approximately 3 million people, Blue Plains was the most important factor in the Potomac's pollution problems.
In the early '70s, this plant was overloaded far beyond its 240 million gallons per day capacity, an excess averaging 30 million gallons a day. The source of this overload was WSSC, which was sending about 120 MGD of sewage to the plant instead of its allocated share of about 90 MGD. With this overload, the monthly poundage of oxygen-demanding pollutants occasionally discharged to the river ran as high as 175,000 pounds per day. But Oxygen-demanding pollutants weren't the only things the plant discharged. There were also large quantities of solids (to describe it politely). And there was a nice irony: stopping the discharge of raw sewage from the Georgetown Gap just meant that more sewage passed on to Blue Plains to add to its problems.
To try to handle the overload, Virginia's water pollution control agency, the State Water Control Board, proposed, with Maryland support, an interim chemical treatment program for Blue Plains similar to the one used to solve Fairfax County's 1970 sewage problem. The aim was to (1) provide a reasonable means of handling this overload in a way that would reduce the total pollutant load; (2) close the Georgetown Gap; and (3) allow some extra capacity at the plant to avoid turning the river into a worse cesspool while a permanent expansion of Blue Plains was under construction.
When Virginia tried to get this program going, EPA officials stoutly denied anything could be done until the permanent expansion was completed many years later. Excuses issued from "the wet noodle of the Potomac" -- EPA -- ad nauseam. The agency was clearly more a part of the problem than part of the solution. One of the real ironies of the EPA performance at that time was that EPA would go shoot up some little, small-polluting town in New Hampshire or Georgia, but when it came to taking on the boys in their own backyard they'd run for cover. The District of Columbia water pollution officials weren't much better. And while the state of Maryland was supportive of the interim program, one WSSC official approached me during the negotiations and in all sincerity asked, "Why are you trying to clean it up? It's nothing but a sewer. That's the way it is, that's what it always will be. Why kid yourself?"
By late summer the negotiations for the interim program were at a standstill. The Virginia SWCB had taken the necessary steps to institute a lawsuit against EPA, the District and WSSC, when Mayor Walter Washington suddenly brought new solution-oriented blood into the management of the Blue Plains situation. James Alexander's appointment as chief of the District Department of Environmental Services swiftly led to an October 1971 agreement on an interim treatment program for Blue Plains and a final solution to the Georgetown Gap. One of the key reasons the region was able to move quickly at low cost thereafter was that the interim agreement involved no federal funds and there was thus no need to struggle for clearances from a myriad of federal officials.
A temporary 16-inch force main was installed in the spring of 1972 under the Whitehurst Freeway to permit the immediate closure of the Georgetown Gap, without waiting for the building of the permanent line.
Within a few more months the interim program for improved sewage treatment at Blue Plains went into operation, ironically provoking quarrels between the District and Maryland about the disposition of the greatly increased quantities of sludge, the treated solids removed from sewage. In the interim agreement, Maryland had agreed to handle the sludge, but Prince George's County and to a lesser extent Montgomery County balked at letting the sludge enter their boundaries even as they happily accepted the increased sewer capacity the treatment program permitted. After a fashion, arrangements were made to handle the sludge, but the issue was never resolved satisfactorily.
By the summer of 1973 marvelous things began to occur in the lower Potomac. The algae didn't come until August, and even then it wasn't quite as thick. The following summer the blue-green algae mats were almost gone. The waters off Georgetown began to look remarkably better, even during periods when the river flows were low. There were real signs that the river was coming back -- but few would believe it. Suing to Solutions
Whenever efforts were made to get grants for upgrading and expanding the troublesome sewage plants, groups such as the Northern Virginia Conservation Council, Maryland Environmental Coalition, and the Dranesville Environmental Force began to stop these cleanup efforts. The "no-growth" forces were trying to use the sewers as a means of controlling new growth in the Washington metropolitan area. Their theory: if you have no new sewer capacity, the plants will remain overloaded, make a big mess of the Potomac, and thereby be the basis for calling a halt to new development.
It became tougher to get new plant construction permits, construction grants, operating permits or new sluge disposal facilities, and with the delay came increased costs for the new treatment plants. But what really suffered was the Potomac itself, which these so-called "environmentalists" swore they wanted to protect.
In any event it appeared that the moratorium the no-growthers were banking on was not working anyway. Signs of revival had hardly begun to appear in the Potomac before it became clear that WSSC's sewage flows to Blue Plains had again greatly increased, despite the Maryland sewer moratorium. The WSSC flow figures to Blue Plains, distressing as they were, did not include the significant bypassing of raw sewage from the suburban collection system directly into the river. It was obvious that WSSC, the Washington area sewer hog, was at it again and the suffering Potomac was the victim.
Fairfax County land-use attorney John "Til" Hazel recognized that a lawsuit was the only way to establish and enforce each jurisdiction's allowable contribution to Blue Plains. In the fall of 1973 the Virginia SWAB brought suit in Federal District Court charging WSSC with overloading Blue Plains. Fairfax County and the District of Columbia and subsequently EPA joined the Virginia agency in the suit while Maryland and Montgomery and Prince George's counties allied themselves with WSSC. The free-for-all was on.
The suit was one of the major milestones in the cleaning up of the Potomac; it prompted a written agreement signed by all parties in June 1974 that became a part of the federal consent decree settling the case. The decree assigned shares of the plant's capacity to the various jurisdictions, laid out procedures to prevent future overloading of Blue Plains and assigned responsibility for the disposal of the sludge. Faced with the possibility of contempt citations, politicians could now deflect the heat off themselves and say, "Oh, the judge has ordered us to find a place for the sludge or else he'll put is in the pokey!" It was a method that at least helped with temporary sludge solutions at Blue Plains. But we're still waiting for that long-term solution required by the 1974 federal consent decree. As a matter of fact, all the jurisdictions are now back in federal court on this issue.
As for the federal Water Pollution Control Act which was passed in October of 1972, it played no role in this cleanup effort. It was, in fact, a johnny-come-lately to the Potomac issue -- except in the latter stages when it provided funds for completion of projects. In a very real sense the Potomac cleanup was a local project -- and success -- triggered by President Johnson's 1965 pledge. A Dream Come True?
At the 1976 Bicentennial Fourth of July fireworks in Washington, an armada of pleasure boats the likes of which the Potomac had not seen in years filled the river and, from the boats, laughter filled the air. No one aboard those boats who'd been on the river before could fail to notice that the raw sewage and other filth were gone.
Later in the fall of 1976, Angus Phillips, The Washington Post's outdoor writer, reported the catching of the highly prized sports fish, the large-mouth black bass, in the Washington section of the Potomac. The large-mouth bass does not do well in polluted waters.
In the next few years, there were more signs that river's waters north of the 14th Street Bridge were improving remarkably. While the Alexandria section still had a long way to go, south of the Wilson Bridge the river was markedly healthier. In 1978 the members of the Harley family of Mason Neck, who have fished the Potomac commercially for five generations, told me that the lower river was in better shape than they had seen it in more than 40 years.
The summer of 1978 saw the start of the annual Potomac Raft Race between the 14th Street and Memorial bridges. And black bass fishing got to the point that Pete Cissel was making a living as a full-time professional bass guide on the Potomac.
Even in eastern Fairfax County people are now beginning to use the river again as a playground. On any sunny summer weekend the Pohick Bay and Belmont Bay are filled with sailboats and water skiers. The Future
Now that the energy crunch is here and it's not so easy to escape our own polluted area for an as-yet-unspoiled region, it will be more important than ever to treat our local rivers as recreational resources. And a beautiful playground is in the making right at our doorstep.
But the margin between recovery of the river and reversion back to the old ways is still very thin, and recently there have been some negative signs. The Montgomery County government has failed to fulfill its obligation under the 1970 and 1974 agreements to provide new sewer treatment capacity to meet their needs as well as the District's needs. This means that Montgomery and the District are again sending more sewage to Blue Plains. The increase can be probably be handled responsibly, but the question is, Will it? Or will the Alexandria waterfront become a sacrificial lamb to the sewer problems created by the incompetence of Montgomery County? This will depend largely on whether a firm and clear written agreement is developed and incorporated as a modification of the 1974 consent decree, thus firmly binding the region's political jurisdictions.
Assuming the sewage plant improvement remains on track, the river is approaching a new and different phase -- the recovery and reclamation phase so people can have better access to the river. Obstacles that developed in the river proper and its bays due to neglect need to be removed so we can enjoy it. For example:
The water area in front of the Watergate Amphitheater near Memorial Bridge, where concerts were once held, needs to be dredged. This will allow the barge for musicians to be positioned near the shore and other canoes and small craft to pull alongside for the kind of summer evening concerts that were held there until the early 1960s when the embankment silted up.
The District river bank south of Blue Plains and directly across from Alexandria is cluttered with sunken barges and old pilings. The area, also plagued with mud flats, is a menace to boats.
Where are the cleanup barges the Corps of Engineers is supposed to have running to keep the river free of debris, logs and trees that wash into the Potomac after heavy rains? These barges were supposed to have been built in the late 1960s but appear to have been retired. There is now a need to refloat the barges, particularly for the various regattas and raft race.
Bays such as Hunting Creek just below Alexandria, the upper end of Pohick Bay and Belmont Bay have become badly silted up, making these bodies of water of little benefit to man, fish or waterfowl. Such mud flats are cheating us of beautiful and useful waterways.
Attending to these tasks will make the river more useful as a local recreational center. These are worthwhile tasks for the Corps of Engineers, and we should begin to raise the issue and get a plan of action to implement them.
It is even possible for the Alexandria waterfront to become a delightful, well-used and enjoyed place again, if the political will to see the completion and final upgrading of Blue Plains holds.
Have no illusions about the sewer problems in this area -- they may be on the way to solution today, but it's always easier to overload existing sewage plants than to build new ones. It will take continuing vigilance to thwart future villains and keep the Potomac clean.
One said comment about the entire Potomac River cleanup: I'm glad it got underway in 1969 and 1970, because I seriously doubt if we started today that we would really be able to do it. Some so-called environmentalists have become so clever at misusing environmental laws and the courts to delay necessary cleanup projects that it would have taken many more years and many more dollars to do the same thing now. Such delays only create problems for which the river becomes the hostage.
But so far we've been lucky. It's now been 15 years since President Johnson envisioned a Potomac we could swim in. Longer than he might have expected, but we're nearly there. If you don't believe me, just come on down to Pohick Bay some sunny day this summer and come on in -- the water's fine.