A new partnership to work for a cleaner, healthier Potomac River. The Nation’s Escape Triathlon is joining forces with the nonprofit group,the Washington, DC region’s leading clean water advocate fighting to make the Potomac River safe to swim in, year-round!
Potomac Conservancy’s goals are:
The Nation’s Escape Triathlon is motivated to work with Potomac Conservancy to clean up and protect the “Nation’s River.”
Through our partnership, now in its second year, the Nation’s Escape Triathlon is offering racers and their families the opportunity to join “Team Potomac” in the fight for a cleaner, healthier Potomac River. When you support Potomac Conservancy with a $10, $20 or $25 contribution, you’ll be supporting local conservation actions that keep pollution out of the Potomac.
You can also join the fight for clean water by getting involved as a volunteer, speaking up for water protection in local decisions, and
Potomac Conservancy is fighting to reduce polluted runoff, pollution that is washed into the river in storms. This source of pollution contributes to bacteria levels that have derailed the swim race in the recent past. Polluted runoff remains the largest barrier to restoring water quality. In fact, it’s the fastest growing source of pollution to the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay.
So, how is the river doing? The good news is the Potomac River is the healthiest it’s been in decades!
Check out the Conservancy’sfor the latest information on Potomac River water quality. The 2018 report gives the river a B health grade. This grade is up from a D minus just ten years ago. For the first time in generations, we are within reach of enjoying a healthy, thriving Potomac River. Working with the Nation’s Escape Triathlon and many individuals, progress is being made toward the ultimate goal – a rating of “swimmable” every day, including on race day!
Why is there a pollution problem in the Potomac River?
When the Potomac River and the streams that flow into it have excessive levels of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus, sediment, or bacteria) their waters can harm aquatic life and can become unsafe to swim in.
The land has an enormous influence on the Potomac’s water quality. Everything that happens on the land impacts the water flowing in our streams and the Potomac River. Local streams and creeks suffer when new development occurs without using best management practices to protect water. These practices, such as installing rain gardens and trees to catch pollution before it enters local streams and rivers, make a big difference. Without these protections, pollution from our communities flows off of our roads and yards, rooftops and parking lots and flows downstream to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
Other types of pollution include: trash; plastics; heavy metals; wildlife, livestock and pet waste; and emerging contaminants like hormone-disrupting chemicals.
To learn about different types of pollution and how they are changing over time, please click here:
Is water quality improving?
The health of the Potomac River continues to improve, earning its highest grade ever in Potomac Conservancy’s most recent Potomac River Report Card, the “State of the Nation’s River”, released on March 27, 2018. In a dramatic turnaround for the source of DC region’s drinking water, the Potomac River’s health has improved to a B, up from an abysmal D — in just ten years.
Top pollutants are on the decline, native fish and wildlife are returning, and more of our upstream forests are under protection.
The river’s comeback has been decades in the making. But that progress is fragile. Polluted runoff, rapid deforestation, and new attacks on water protections threaten to return dangerous pollution to local waters, the report warns. And day to day, heavy rain and other local conditions change water quality. See the full report at
Polluted runoff is a problem, but why?
While an overall decline in pollution levels is good news, polluted runoff is the only kind of pollution that is increasing in the Potomac. And it happens every time it rains. Polluted runoff carries with it whatever is on the ground, including chemicals, oils, sediment, excess fertilizers, dog waste and trash. It even causes sewer overflows in older sewer systems. This polluted runoff is a growing challenge for our urban and suburban waterways. Because we have more paved streets, parking lots and rooftops than ever before in our region, the amount of polluted runoff being channeled into storm drains and from there into area waterways has continued to rise. This one source of pollution threatens to undo decades of restoration progress.
What’s the deal with excess nutrients?
Nutrients are essential to the health, growth, and reproduction of plants and animals (including people!), but too many nutrients can cause problems. Nitrogen and phosphorus are commonly sprayed onto our lands as fertilizers for green lawns and to increase the yield of farm crops. If too much is applied or if they are incorrectly applied, these farms, residential yards, or commercial properties cannot absorb all of the nutrients and the excess flows off the land and into our local waterways. In our streams, excess nutrients encourage excessive growth of algae and nutrient-hungry plants. When those plants later die, the tiny organisms that help decompose the dead plants use large amounts of oxygen in the water. This depletion of oxygen can become a “dead zone.” The no-oxygen condition in the water kills fish or forces them to move away, changing the whole underwater community.
What’s the problem with sediment?
Sediment pollution, caused by erosion, flows into our rivers and streams when land is disturbed such as when new developments or roads are built, or when trees and plants are removed from shorelines. Stream bank erosion is also propelled by large storm events. Erosion occurs naturally in river systems as water flows over the land, but excessive erosion poses a dangerous threat to water quality, fish health, and underwater vegetation.
For a swimmer, sediment makes the water appear murky and can coat the skin with grit. Excess sediment can prevent fish from laying eggs and make it hard for them to find food. A few years of those conditions, and fish populations are in trouble.
River-friendly development practices such as protecting existing trees, installing rain gardens, and planting vegetation can help capture and filter polluted runoff. Healthy, forested shorelines help prevent erosion and shield local streams from this kind of sediment pollution.
Is there sewage in the water?
In communities that have old waste water systems, bacterial pollution can come from broken pipes or stormwater overflows.
What is a combined sewer overflow event?
Older sewage systems sometimes have pipes and tunnels that can combine raw sewage with the water that flows on our streets and down storm drains during heavy storms. Combined sewers can cause serious water pollution problems when a significant amount of rain falls in a short period of time. In heavy storms, when the storm drains on our streets are collecting so much water that the flow exceeds the capacity of the storm water pipes, the pipes allow stormwater to combine with raw sewage. In these cases, the combined stormwater and raw sewage flow directly into a stream or river until the flow decreases with the end of the storm event. There are several of the older combined sewage systems in the Potomac watershed, including parts of Washington, DC and Alexandria, VA. Most of these jurisdictions are now are engaged in building solutions, or have begun to discuss how they will address the problem. However, such solutions are expensive and take a long time to complete.
A new solution for combined sewer overflows went into service in Washington, DC this spring, protecting the Anacostia River from millions of gallons of raw sewage pollution a year. The results are going to be positive for the Potomac River; the Anacostia River flows into the Potomac River at the southern edge of Washington, DC.
What’s being done to solve the pollution problem?
Potomac Conservancy is the region’s leading clean water advocate, combining the grassroots power of over 23,000 members and online activists with local land conservation and policy initiatives. Founded in 1993, Potomac Conservancy drives the region’s clean water movement by providing the tools that empower local landowners, activists, volunteers, partners, donors and river champions to lead the charge for clean water. Together citizens and Potomac Conservancy are fighting to ensure the Potomac River is home to clean water and healthy lands.
Recent water quality improvements in the Potomac are the result of years of effort from non-profits, communities, government partners, and individuals.
Some of these efforts include:
Green infrastructure and nature-based solutions
Trees, rain gardens, bioswales (plantings in roadside depressions), and other nature-based strategies (also called “green infrastructure”) can protect our community waters by serving as natural filtration systems that soak up and treat excess rainwater. They can counteract the damage done by deforestation and some types of development that increase the levels of polluted runoff – the fastest growing contributor of pollution to the Potomac. Each time it rains, chemicals, toxins, and sediment flow into our waters from the lands, parking lots, roads, and rooftops in our communities. Green infrastructure solutions help the rain to soak in where it falls, and keep pollution out of streams.
Potomac Conservancy promotes local land use policies that safeguard and enhance urban tree canopy and green infrastructure, offering both natural solutions and economic opportunities for our communities. Learn more at
Smart growth and river-friendly development
Census projections predict the DC-Metro region will grow by an additional 2 million people in the next 20 years, further straining our waterways and resources. Local communities have a say in how and where they grow. Using comprehensive and strategic planning processes, Potomac Conservancy encourages river-friendly development that prioritizes green space, limits sprawl, and protects our local creeks and streams. Learn more at
Best Management Practices on farms and rural landscapes
Home to working farms and lively communities, our region's rural lands are an important part of our cultural heritage and our economy. Potomac Conservancy advocates for robust state and federal investment to support the implementation of conservation practices on farmland, also known as Best Management Practices. In this way, we are helping to ensure our well-managed family-owned farms are both productive and river-friendly. Learn more:
Volunteer river clean ups and tree plantings
Each year, Potomac Conservancy works with hundreds of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds to restore shorelines, raise awareness, and inspire residents to make a difference. Removing trash and planting trees help improve water quality. Clearing trash also helps improve wildlife habitat and parks and trails along the riverside. Planting trees along the water’s edge helps control erosion, filter pollution, and improve wildlife habitat. Learn more:
It takes the collective voices and actions of a diverse community to drive progress. To leverage our impact, Potomac Conservancy actively pursues partnerships among diverse interests including national parks, community groups, businesses, faith organizations, and local decision-makers. We promote active and consistent civic engagement, encouraging citizens to make clean water a priority issue for their elected representatives. Learn more:
Legal action against polluters
While Potomac Conservancy does not pursue legal actions or lawsuits against polluters, we partner with other organizations who use this approach. Please visit Potomac Riverkeeper’s website for more information on the importance of litigation as a tool for clean water:
Will I get sick if I swim in the Potomac River?
While many do not give it a second thought, others wonder about the safety and cleanliness of the water in the Potomac River and its tributaries. Safety can change day-by-day depending on rain, temperature, and other factors so it is important to check conditions before you enter the water.
Bacteria are the main concern for direct water contact recreation (such as swimming, wading, and water skiing). While bacteria are integral parts of any natural system, some types in sufficient number, can cause gastrointestinal or respiratory illnesses or skin and ear infections.
Bacteria water testing is sometimes conducted at areas designated as bathing beaches, or at parks where wading or swimming is officially allowed. These tests involve examining a water sample for indicator bacteria that signal conditions conducive to the growth of harmful types of bacteria.
Information on water quality is not available for all parts of the Potomac. Some areas, including many of the Potomac’s tributary rivers and streams, may not have a water quality monitoring station.
Here are ways to limit your risk when recreating in or near the Potomac:
To learn more about current conditions and potential health risks from swimming, please visit:
What is the temperature of the water in the Potomac River?
The Nation’s Escape Triathlon will have water temperature information for racers in the days leading up to the race. All athletes will be informed of the water temperature during the mandatory athlete meetings on Saturday.
What is the current like in the Potomac River?
The Potomac’s current varies widely throughout the course of the river. Storm events and rainfall change the current, too. Please use common sense and caution at all times when on or near the river. Several websites track river conditions, including temperature and current, in real-time: