We appreciate the spotlight that American Rivers shined on the health of the Potomac River in its “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” report last week. Since the passing of the Clean Water Act 40 years ago, we have made great progress in eliminating some of the more visible pollution entering the Nation’s River. But clearly there is much more to be done.
Today, many of the pollutants in the Potomac arrive indirectly, rather than out of an industrial pipe. These contaminants are delivered through products and practices that are ingrained in our lifestyles: meat products shot full of antibiotics and steroids, vegetables sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, a variety of potentially harmful household cleaning products, shampoos, deodorants and common pharmaceuticals.
Although these are the ingredients of our daily lives, they are also a recipe for disaster — silent pollutants to the Potomac and the communities that pull their drinking water from the river. More obvious is the polluted runoff that inundates streams after rainstorms. These sediment-laden waters carry the toxins of our developed world straight into the river — oil, lawn chemicals, sediment and more.
What goes around comes around, as they say, and the longer we defer our river cleanup, the harder we have to work and the more we will pay to keep ahead of the public health consequences of living near, and drinking from, a polluted waterway.
The good news, however, is that the nature of this threat means there is much individuals can do to help clean the water. We recommend the following recipe for a healthy Potomac River:
●Add more green space to street and home plans.
●Reduce the use of pavement, and plant trees and shrubs instead of lawns.
●Eliminate the use of fertilizer or limit its use to the fall.
●Use rain barrels and other techniques to collect rainwater.
●Do not flush old medications down the toilet.
●Buy unscented personal hygiene products.
●Support local, organic farms.
●Be active to protect where you live and what you love. Support strong and sensible clean water policies, and demand enforcement of clean water laws.
Important action can be taken at the municipal level, too. This year, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has set a goal of making the Potomac clean enough for children to swim in and healthy enough that fish pulled from it can be eaten. This is a tremendous long-term commitment to better river health.
On the opposite shore, Arlington County has implemented its Green Streets program to address the problem of polluted stormwater runoff. This project turns a typical streetscape into a healthy green filter that stops stormwater in its tracks and gives it time to settle before entering local waterways. Such green street and building designs can break down pollutants before reaching streams and turn unwanted runoff into beneficial groundwater.
A key ingredient in the recipe is sufficient investment. Maryland’s General Assembly recently enacted a funding initiative to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff. The legislation requires nine counties and Baltimore City to establish a watershed protection and restoration program to raise revenue to clean local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Montgomery County already has a stormwater fee in place. Local governments will charge property owners a fee based on the amount of pavement on their properties. The affected counties and municipalities will have until July 1, 2013, to implement a watershed protection and restoration program.
Water is a critical pathway in the delivery of many contaminants to humans. Our organizations see the recent Most Endangered River designation as an opportunity to invite people to join us in helping to continue to clean up and protect the Nation’s River. Until people can swim in the Potomac or eat the fish out of our river without risking their health, there will be much work to do.