The Potomac River Diet

Over the course of May, American Rivers will be providing insight into America’s Most Endangered Rivers® through a series of guest blogs about this year’s ten rivers.  Today, American Rivers welcomes these thoughts from Hedrick Belin, President of Potomac Conservancy:

Take Action to Protect the
Potomac River


Let Congress know you support the Clean Water Act

Congress, States, and Local Governments Must Exercise Willpower and Cut Pounds for Clean Rivers

American Rivers’ designation of the Potomac River as America’s Most Endangered River® of 2012 is a clarion call for additional government leadership, action, and investment – not less.  From the federal decisions in Congress, to code and ordinance changes at the county level, we have an opportunity to weigh-in on matters critical to the quality of the water that flows in our rivers.

At the federal level, rule makers are now considering changes that will rollback protections afforded by the Clean Water Act, which has improved water quality and revitalized communities along our waterways.  Now celebrating its 40th year of protecting the nation’s rivers, this landmark legislation—and the Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces it—is under siege from industry special interests and budget cuts. 

States and local governments have much latitude when it comes to implementing the federal Clean Water Act for our waterways.  As a part of the effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia are finalizing clean-up plans for their rivers and streams, designed to reduce the flow of pollutants into the Potomac River. 

Pollutant Weight Loss Guides

State Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) offer a path to river health; they are our pollution dieter’s guide for the next decade.  Thus, the state will act as calorie counters for our River Diet.

Two hallmarks of a successful diet are decreased intake and increased exercise.  It is not so different for waterways.  Even accounting for the ability of the natural environment to absorb pollutants, our streams can only hold so much contaminated water.  Locally, Arlington County has implemented its Green Streets program as a solution to polluted stormwater runoff.  This new project turns your typical streetscape into a healthy green filter that stops stormwater in its tracks and gives it time to settle before entering local waterways.  The result— green street designs that retain stormwater, break down pollutants before reaching streams, and turn unwanted runoff into beneficial groundwater.

Pollutant “weight loss” is quantifiable because much of the pollution seen in the Potomac and the Chesapeake is measured in pounds.  There have been some positive developments in the last few years, with both Maryland and Virginia adopting a ban on a major pollutant called phosphorus in most lawn fertilizers.  At the local level, several communities in Northern Virginia, including Fairfax County, have initiatives to use fertilizer appropriately, and to prevent it from washing into local creeks and streams.

By having ordinances on the books to keep these pollutants out of our waterways, local and county governments improve water quality.  These steps also save our tax dollars by negating the need to remove this pollutant after it gets in the storm system— which costs upwards of $30,000 per pound.

No More Yo-Yo Dieting: Local Governments Must Pledge to Shed Pollution Pounds

Potomac Conservancy believes the key to success is collaboration at every level.  We need to reduce pollution now, and we will need everyone at the table.  When we work together to implement good projects, like green streets in urban areas or fertilizer initiatives, we will have a positive effect on water quality in the Potomac and beyond.  More than 6 million people live in the Potomac River watershed, and we must all act together to strengthen protections on our rivers.

Regardless of the level—county, state, or federal— initiatives that flourish in one administration can be dramatically altered in the next.  The Conservancy is not interested in short-term solutions, or political brinksmanship, but rather, a comprehensive and sustained effort to clean up the Potomac and the Chesapeake, where every county and state is a committed partner to the pollution reduction goals.

Currently, the states promise to accelerate the pace of pollution reductions, but the strategies proposed in the WIP’s do not provide concrete implementation steps or describe specific policy changes to manage pollution from future development.  Like any diet, this reduction plan will succeed only with long-term commitment and discipline.


To lend your voice to this effort to improve the Potomac and tell Congress to support the Clean Water Act!

Then, visit the Potomac Conservancy website and sign up as a Potomac Advocate.