Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The Potomac River is both a beloved feature of the District and a notoriously ailing body of water that’s often the butt of many local residents’ jokes and memes. But its time as a laughingstock might be coming to an end. 

A new report from the nationally accredited, local land trust the Potomac Conservancy reveals significant improvement in the health of the river. This year, after measuring progress in 20 different areas, the conservancy rated the Potomac River a B health level, up from a B- three years ago and a D in 2011. 

At a May 16 press conference, representatives from the Potomac Conservancy spoke specifically about their findings on the river’s pollution, fish, habitat, land, and recreation. 

The Potomac Conservancy reviewed the 2023 Potomac River report card May 16 at the Potomac Boat Club in Northwest; Credit: Camila Bailey

The conservancy had aimed to have a swimmable, fishable Potomac River by 2025, but several barriers have stood in the way. Chief among them is deforestation, which has inhibited natural defenses against pollution runoff. Potomac Conservancy president Hedrick Belin emphasizes the role trees play in things like absorbing rainwater and filtering urban runoff that comes from industrial and agricultural sites, or wastewater effluent. 

The most challenging barrier to optimal river health, however, is the climate crisis, and the intensified storms and increased droughts that occur as a result. “Restoration does not mean replicating what things might have looked like 50 years ago,” Virginia Delegate Rip Sullivan states. He points to climate change as a major factor in the overall health of regional waterways. “We’re going to have to rethink some of the approaches we’ve been using,” he says. 

These same barriers have led the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee to say, in their own evaluation, published May 9, that progress for meeting the Chesapeake Bay river quality standards has been slower than anticipated. 

Five million people rely on the Potomac River for drinking water and recreation. Maryland Delegate Sara Love says that investing in the Potomac is a direct investment into local communities, and by focusing on sustainable development, these residents all stand to benefit. 

While swimming in the Potomac or consuming fish harvested from its waters remains illegal due to health concerns, D.C. residents continue to make the most of the local body of water. Belin notes recreation levels have surged since the pandemic. He says the number of requests for D.C. fishing licenses quadrupled in 2020.

The report reflects many improvements in the water’s health. Industrial and farming pollution levels are declining and the Potomac is on track to meet the 2025 reduction benchmarks in these areas.

In areas where progress must still be made, the Potomac Conservancy will collaborate with legislators and community members, especially through land-based approaches. This includes protecting healthy forests and streams, restoring trees and wildlife habitats, passing water protection laws, and investing in combating the climate crisis. Belin is also stressing the importance of prioritizing equitable solutions to help those most impacted by water pollution and the climate crisis. 

Studies are being conducted to assess whether lifting D.C.’s swimming ban will be possible in the next two to three years. If that happens, however, the river will still be off-limits during and after wet weather events because stormwater runoff causes pollution to spike to dangerous levels.

But Belin remains optimistic that swimming and fishing in D.C.’s Potomac waters will soon be attainable, largely thanks to ongoing initiatives in the DMV. Belin points to Maryland’s recent pledge to plant 5 million trees by 2030 as contributing toward progress, and D.C. is conducting its own efforts to reduce polluted runoff, especially following wet weather events. 

The federal government has also begun investing in river conservation, both through funding allotted by the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as an increased amount of funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program. “You’re seeing a big appetite for clean water programming,” Belin says. 

During the Tuesday event, the conservancy pointed out that the Potomac is what divides Love and Sullivan’s Maryland and Virginia constituencies, but the river is also something DMV residents share. 

“The river belongs to all of us, it’s our river to enjoy and protect,” Belin said. “It’s a life force in our region.”

The Potomac Conservancy offered several ways for DMV residents to assist in conservation efforts, including through donations, volunteer events, or simply through mindful interactions with the river. Opportunities to get involved directly with the conservancy are available at