The Potomac River's Recovery May Be Stalling

Potomac River Forest and vegetation that come to the edge of the Potomac River help to protect water quality from polluted stormwater runoff. File photo

The Potomac River is much cleaner today than it was in 1964 when then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson called it “a national disgrace,” but efforts are still needed to get it to an A grade, Hedrick Belin, President of the Potomac Conservancy, told attendees of a May 26, 2021, Zoom meeting of the Friends of Dyke Marsh. “It is still too polluted for swimming and fishing,” he cautioned.

Potomac RiverPotomac River below Old Town Alexandria. Photo by T.D. Hobart

In the Conservancy’s latest report card analyzing 2020 conditions, the Potomac got a B-, declining from a B in 2018.  It is greatly improved from its 2011 grade of D, but the recovery is plateauing.  See

Two problems stand out. Shoreline deforestation and ever-expanding impervious surfaces take away the land’s ability to naturally absorb rainwater.  In the Conservancy’s analysis, forested shoreline buffers earned an F grade.  Hard surfaces like parking lots, roads and roofs block rainwater’s natural infiltration into the ground.

To have a cleaner river, Belin advised, “We need to work with nature, not against it, replicate it.” He challenged attendees to be Potomac River advocates, to restore what George Washington called “the nation’s river.”

Cosponsors of the program were the Four Mile Run Conservancy Foundation, Porto Vecchio Condominium, the Friends of Little Hunting Creek, the Friends of Mason Neck State Park and the Society of Conservation Biology, Washington, D. C., chapter.

To see the presentation, click on the image at the bottom of the page.


Potomac healthChallenges to the health of the Potomac River remain. Photo courtesy of Hedrik Belin, Potomac River basinMap of the Potomac River watershed. Photo courtesy of Hedrik Belin,
DolphinsCommon bottlenose dolhpins are spotted in the Potomac River, seen as far from the Atlantic Ocean as the U.S. 301 Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge. Photo courtesy of the Potomac-Chesapeake Dolphin Project, taken under NMFS Permit #19403. SturgeonAnglers Josh Cohn and Connor Lynch snapped a photo of the shortnose sturgeon they caught in the Potomac River at Fletcher's Boathouse, keeping it in the water to prevent harm. Photo courtesy of Josh Cohn via Bay Journal on Twitter

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