A dog swimming in Rock Creek Park. Image by the author.

The reasons why you can’t safely or legally swim in the District’s rivers could be resolved within the next several years — a concrete milestone for clean rivers which until recently seemed difficult to envision. This would open new outdoor recreation opportunities city-wide, and enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors.

For many years, poor water quality alone was enough to keep people from wanting to swim in our rivers. Local nonprofits that monitor the Potomac and Anacostia have documented what seems like slow but steady progress.

The Potomac Conservancy graded the Potomac a “B” in 2018, rising from a D- in 2007. The Anacostia Watershed Society rated the Anacostia a D- in 2018, the river’s first passing grade, with the ability to swim in the Anacostia by 2025 a stated goal. Both organizations, Rock Creek Conservancy, and their volunteers conduct extensive hands-on activities to improve our rivers.

This progress manifests itself in many ways, according to N. Shulterbrandt and Jeffrey Seltzer in the District Department of Energy and Environment Water Quality Division. Bald eagles are now nesting and breeding in the District. The American shad (a type of migratory herring) population continues to recover. Researchers have seen reductions of nitrogen in our waterways and a massive reduction of trash. They’re also noticing healthier fish, along with increased aquatic vegetation.

A young bald eagle at Poplar point on the Anacostia River by Ketzirah Lesser & Art Drauglis licensed under Creative Commons.

None of these favorable indicators on their own can make swimming safe and legal in the District. Yet, over a period of several years, there have been incremental signs of movement in this direction.

DC allows swimming for special events

A 1971 District law prohibited swimming in District’s waters. In 2007, improved water quality led the District to allow for exceptions in order to host special events, such as the swim leg of a triathlon. However, the permission was contingent on water quality testing during a specified time period prior to the event, and the rulemaking only covered the Potomac because the its water quality has improved sooner than the Anacostia's.

The Nation’s Triathalon successfully held its race in 2008, including the swim. Since then, race organizers have announced the cancellation of the swim (leaving only the bicycling and running legs) in years when the water quality did not meet required standards.

Triathalon in DC by Yosi Lazarof licensed under Creative Commons.

In 2012, what is now called the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) amended the swimming ban in DC Municipal Regulations to formally allow swimming in the Potomac River for special events. In 2018, DOEE extended the same special events process to cover the Anacostia River. The event organizer still needed to submit the results of a water quality test, and DOEE could refuse permission if the test results failed to meet standards or any situations adversely impact water quality, such as a combined sewage overflow that frequently occurred after rainfall.

The rulemaking to allow only special events contained an intriguingly optimistic phrase, stating that “primary contact recreation shall remain prohibited…until such time as the standards…for Class A beneficial use are consistently maintained.” This seemed to imply that at some point when water quality improved, DOEE would be prepared to revisit the traditional swimming ban, and not only for special events.

What does “consistently maintained” mean?

The Municipal Regulations as currently written reference a standard rivers must meet before swimming is allowed. These standards, consistent with federal water quality requirements, set criteria for three measurements: one bacteriological (E. coli) and two physical (pH and turbidity).

On a weekly basis from May to September, DOEE employees test three locations in each the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers: one in the Washington Channel, and two in Rock Creek. Most of the river measurements occur near bridges: Key, 14th Street, Haines Point, New York Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and South Capitol.

DOEE publishes the most recent data online for public review, though only river data and not Rock Creek has been published as of this time due to greater interest in river water quality. DOEE emphasizes that this data is not real-time enough to allow swimming, nor is swimming currently legal except for special events.

Cleanup in Rock Creek Park by RTC/Suzanne Matyas licensed under Creative Commons.

For example, in July 2018 there were five weekly measurements which are used to calculate a 30-day mean. Washington Channel, Key, 14th Street, and Haines Point met the E. coli standard at least four out of five times, but New York Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and South Capitol did so two or fewer times.

Every location on both rivers met the pH standard at least four times, though there appeared to be a spike above the standard at nearly every location on July 2. For the past three months, all sites moved nearly in lockstep regarding turbidity depending, meeting standard some weeks and missing it others, likely dependent on recent heavy rainfall

What has not been established is how DOEE will assess “consistently maintained.” DOEE wants to obtain more data and then solicit stakeholder feedback on how to define this term. Additional data will, for example, come from a recently-awarded citizen monitoring grant to Anacostia Riverkeeper. This will enable the organization to recruit and train volunteers to obtain more frequent samples for water quality monitoring. DOEE hopes this will be fully operational by spring 2019.

Where will we be allowed to swim?

Specific locations will be designated based on river access, public safety, and water quality, along with other considerations identified by stakeholders. For example, DOEE has not started any formal legal research or discussions related to federal laws or regulations related to access from NPS land. DOEE wants to keep all options open, and is aware of some District-owned properties that could also be considered depending on NPS interest.

Combined sewer overflow in Arlington by Daniel Lobo licensed under Creative Commons.

Once DOEE has feedback, it will refine the frequency and locations for testing that will allow for swimming at select locations in the District. Informally, DOEE believes that water quality will only need to be consistently maintained in areas near allowable swimming, without having to wait for all of the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek within the District to meet standards. DOEE also wants to avoid areas with contaminated sediment.

What will it take for the District to make all this happen?

Unfortunately, DC only controls a small portion of the watershed that feeds the city’s portion of our two rivers along with Rock Creek. DOEE will continue to work with our upstream jurisdictions to align our water quality efforts. There is much left to do, particularly regarding stormwater runoff containing contaminants. Peak rains remain troublesome because of contaminated stormwater runoff pouring into our waterways.

Within the District, DC Water is in the middle of its Clean Rivers Program mandated by a 2005 consent decree with the EPA. Large tunnels, some of which are already in place, will allow combined sewer overflow to be stored during heavy rainfall and later treated instead of flowing directly into our rivers. These will be completed in 2023 for the Anacostia and 2030 for the Potomac.

Green infrastructure to address Rock Creek will be installed by 2030. The infrastructure would reduce contaminated stormwater runoff volume by 96% across the Potomac, the Anacostia, and Rock Creek — by 98% in the Anacostia specifically.

DOEE, DC Water, Anacostia Riverkeeper, Potomac Conservancy, Rock Creek Conservancy and others, including numerous volunteers, continue a broad range of efforts to make our waterways safe, beautiful, and swimmable. DC is planning to reach out to residents, recreational users, Congress, the EPA, DC and US Park Police, and others to get input on implementing a plan for safe and legal swimming.

A broad coalition of visionary, dedicated organizations and volunteers can savor a big win once our rivers are declared ready for swimming. But most of all, in a city that normally has 109 days a year at or over 80 degrees, swimming in our rivers will be a fun way to for residents and tourists to cool off.