Report Card On The Potomac River: Access And Water Supply

The following is a guest post SERIES by JD Willoughby. JD has worked to protect and restore natural resources for more than 20 years in the Chesapeake Bay. Now located in Anchorage, AK, she continues her work in the natural resources field and enjoys exploring the last frontier.

Scenic Potomac River | © Adam Fagen

Potomac River, WV | © Adam Fagen

Today we have the final installment of a series of blogs focused on a recent report from the Potomac Conservancy on the status of the Potomac River’s health. Below is a summary of their findings related to land use and communities in the watershed.

Also called the “Nation’s River,” the Potomac flows through five jurisdictions: Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. The watershed covers almost 15,000 square miles and is home to more than six million people. The Potomac Conservancy’s report card notes that the average population density across the U.S. is about 87 people per square mile, while the Potomac watershed has about 415 people per square mile.

The Potomac River provides water supply for about five million of those residents. It is the second largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, contributing about 25% of the Bay’s overall volume. Concerns about threats to clean water protections for our nation’s river and rivers across the country led American Rivers to name the Potomac River at the top of the annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2012.

While about 1.8 million acres, roughly 25%, of the Potomac’s watershed is protected, the remainder is subject to development. For this protection, the Potomac received an “A.” Steadily increasing, the number of developed acres is expected to reach 1.5 million by 2020 and 1.75 million by 2040. Development creates more impervious surfaces, which contribute to polluted runoff and degrade water quality.

The Potomac was given a grade of “B” for its accessibility to residents and visitors. The river has about 150 public access points, but Potomac Conservancy has set a goal of 220 by 2025. More access to the Potomac will encourage stewardship and hopefully foster the difficult political discussions about controlling development, protecting the resources that are thriving, and restoring the resources that have been degraded.

For 2013, the Potomac Conservancy concluded that the river earned a “C” grade compared to the 2011 “D” grade. Historical accounts of this watershed note the plentiful fish and shellfish, the deep green canopy stretching for miles past the river’s banks, and the water so clear you could see to the bottom. The overall grade of “C” is fair, but it should raise questions about what each of us can do to get the Potomac an “A.” While it is not practical or possible to return the Potomac to its historic grandeur, it is within our power to better care for this river, its tributaries, its land, and its people.