In Rare Coliform: As long as it doesn?t rain, Nation?s triathletes are free to swim.
In Rare Coliform: As long as it doesn?t rain, Nation?s triathletes are free to swim. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

More than 3,500 folks jumped in the water at Hains Point on Sunday for the first leg of the Nation’s Triathlon, a 1.5-mile swim in the Potomac.

As of a day later, neither Mayor Adrian M. Fenty nor any fellow competitors had come down with cholera or grown a new set of gonads.

That’s progress.

“When I heard that they were swimming down by the Memorial Bridge, my first reaction was: You wouldn’t get me in there!” says Rita Colwell, a noted environmental researcher and former director of the National Science Foundation.

Colwell, who was born in 1934 and has taught at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, has followed the plight of the Potomac for decades. She knows that newspaper accounts about swimming in the Potomac written since the 1800s are likely to include references to “fecal matter” and “intestinal organisms.” She remembers how Surgeon General Luther L. Terry called the Potomac “one of the most polluted streams in the nation” in 1961.

And Colwell is well aware that only two years ago local fishermen made national news by calling attention to the onset of “intersex fish”—bass caught on the Potomac had male and female sex organs. Chicken poop was blamed for that phenomenon.

The onslaught of intersexual smallmouth bass is just one colorful chapter in the amazing and mostly putrid history of swimming in the Potomac. Consider that Lyndon Johnson tried to one-up his predecessor in the White House, a guy who had pledged to put a man on the moon, by telling America he would put swimmers in the city’s big river: While signing the Water Quality Act of 1965, Johnson said, “I pledge that we are going to reopen the Potomac for swimming by 1975.”

He set up something called the President’s Inter-Departmental Task Force on the Potomac Basin. Johnson was going to use the Potomac as the model for all of America’s dirty waters. Once swimmers returned here, he thought, the movement to clean our nation’s rivers would take off.

Alas, the lunar landing proved more feasible.

In 1971, past the halfway point for Johnson’s goal, the Potomac was still so dirty that authorities made swimming in the river a crime punishable by a $300 fine. Though a billion dollars and a lot of political capital was used up trying to meet Johnson’s goal, it’s still a crime to swim in the Potomac.

Except, that is, for one day per year—the day of the Nation’s Triathlon. And even then, if it rains, the triathlon becomes a duathlon. That’s because antiquated city sewers regularly overflow with storm runoff, dumping raw sewage into area waterways—which is what nixed swimming from the race’s 2006 debut.

“As a microbiologist, I just wouldn’t swim in the Potomac—not without knowing the coliform count,” Colwell says.

Oh, there’s always been some pollution. In 1885, a story in the Washington Post told of the river being overrun by “carcasses of dead hogs” and other “objectionable material” floating in from West Virginia. And a report for the Marine Hospital Service in 1900 said the river was rife with “the wastes of human life” including “intestinal organisms” and “the colon germ.” The report found that the “excreta” of one patient in Cumberland, Md., had caused the dozens of deaths from typhoid in D.C. in 1889 and 1890.

But such yuckiness didn’t used to be enough to keep us out of George Washington’s favorite river.

Until 1923, the Washington Canoe Club held an annual swim from Chain Bridge to the Three Sisters Islands upstream of Georgetown. And there was a public sand beach along the Tidal Basin, with a diving float in the middle of the river.

The District’s health department closed the beach in 1924 after a report that the presence of germs that cause typhoid and cholera was about 1,000 times greater than the acceptable level. The report’s author, W.F. Draper, said the Potomac River was “polluted beyond hope” and that the prospect of ever swimming in the river again was “doomed forever.”

Nobody’s proven Draper wrong since.

But, as mentioned above, there have been efforts to prove the river swimmable.

In 1955, a water ballet and comedy diving act that was to be part of the President’s Cup Regatta, a powerboat race that ran annually on the river at Hains Point from 1926 to 1977, was canceled. The city’s health director, Daniel L. Seckinger, told the promoters of the race that the event would foster the “erroneous and dangerous idea that it is safe to swim in the Potomac River in the Washington area.” Seckinger said that at the stretch of river near Hains Point where the entertainment was to have taken place, 18 million gallons of raw sewage, including some taken “directly from the bathrooms of the sick,” was discharged every day.

The high point in the move to restore swimming to the Potomac came in the summer of 1978. Paul Eastman, an environmentalist and director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, organized what he called a “Swim-In” and urged people to jump in the river to spend one day that September wallowing in the water.

But Lt. Thomas M. McGlynn, commander of the District’s harbor police, canceled Eastman’s big event. McGlynn’s divers told the Post that they get inoculated for typhoid infection before jumping in the water. The authorities pinned the cancellation on “fecal coliform” levels.

And once the Swim-In went under, the Potomac swimming movement stalled.

In 1982, the General Accounting Office under Ronald Reagan declared that at least $20 million had been wasted trying to implement Johnson’s Potomac River swimming initiative. There hasn’t been any big push to get people back in the water since.

Will that ever change?

“I think there will be swimming in the Potomac again,” says Colwell. The former NSF head, obviously a big thinker, predicts that the very same wastes that made the river so heinous will be involved in making it swimmable.

“Our country’s energy needs will be behind this—the energy that’s in domestic waste that could and should be recycled, changed to renewable and non-fossil fuels,” she says. “I’ve been saying for 20 years that the methane that we generate [at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant] could heat and light and cool all of Washington, D.C.”

Robert L. Collings, an attorney with the EPA branch that oversaw the Potomac River in the 1970s, is also among the hopeful.

Collings, who was a supporter of the doomed “Swim-In” in 1978, thinks events like the Nation’s Triathlon, not new technologies, will spur the rebirth of Potomac swimming.

“I’m glad to hear they’re using the Potomac for [the race], because out of events like this people can develop a body of evidence that shows that these rivers really are swimmable,” says Collings. “Now, I’m not advocating that [competitors] be used as lab animals, but they could look at what happens in these events and say, ‘Hey, nobody got sick; there’s no obvious risk; let’s swim in the river.’ There’s no such thing as no risk, so come on.”