WASHINGTON — DMV leaders celebrated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Clean Water Act Tuesday by hosting members of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, who said there has been so much progress that swimming is safe most of the time.
Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks called on the D.C. government to end its decades-long ban on swimming in the river.
"I think a lot of people still think that this river is not clean enough to swim, but we've been doing the testing for three straight years, every single week," Naujoks said. "And we're finding that there's plenty of days, and a lot of places more than 85% of the time, where it is safe to swim in this river. I swim in this river, my daughter swims in this river.”
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said she will encourage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct studies on the possibility of reopening safe swimming zones on the Potomac and lifting the swimming ban, which has been in place since 1932.
The ban shut down a popular swimming beach that operated in the tidal basin. In the 1920s, thousands of residents flocked to the beach, which included a platform for diving. By the 1960s, industrial pollution and sewage had turned the river into what President Lyndon Johnson called "a national disgrace."
The passage of the U.S. Clean Water Act set strict controls on industrial pollution and required cities to upgrade sewage treatment systems.
The results on the Potomac have been dramatic, according to Naujoks.
On the banks of the Potomac at Fletcher’s Cove in Northwest DC river users expressed mixed opinions.
"Absolutely not! I’d never get into Potomac River," said fisherman James Kilpatrick who cited concerns about pollution and dangerous currents.
But paddle boarders and kayakers say they’ve witnessed change.
"It looks clean," said Oliver Olagario after he had just finished paddleboarding in the river. "I see biodiversity and a lot of fish."
"I'm hearing and seeing good things about the Potomac,” said kayaker Bob Marske.
For now, swimming events such as triathlons are allowed through individual permits that follow a process to determine if conditions are safe, according to a statement from D.C.'s Department of Energy and the Environment.
However, DOEE’s goal is to allow swimming in District waters, according to a statement.
"We are encouraged to see recent data indicating that the Potomac is often safe for swimming," DOEE wrote in a statement. "To remove the swimming ban, DOEE is taking steps to update our regulations and water quality standards to be consistent with EPA’s most recent science and recommended standards. This, combined with developing new monitoring and analytical tools, will allow the District to alert the public when the waters are unsafe for contact recreation, not unlike beach advisories that are used in coastal communities."
Drownings and safety remain a top concern of the U.S. Park Police, who continue to attempt to enforce the swimming ban while issuing annual warnings about treacherous currents and dangerous conditions.
Naujoks said he envisions a future that could include developed swimming beaches in locations like Hains Point and National Harbor.