WAMU 88.5 : News

Potomac River Gets A 'D' In Health

Play associated audio
Heavy storms have caused the Potomac to swell and even spill over its banks in some places.
Rebecca Sheir
Heavy storms have caused the Potomac to swell and even spill over its banks in some places.

Derived from a set of indicators that include water clarity and grass distribution, the report released last week by the University of Maryland and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that overall health of the Chesapeake Bay declined by 4 percent. The Potomac River’s overall health declined from a grade of "C" in 2009 to a "D" for 2010.

Scientist Catharine Wicks, coordinator for the report, said increased stream flow contributed to the decline in water quality.

Two major storms, in January and March of 2010 generated an increased amount of runoff, which washed nutrients and sediment into the river. Spring and summer dry spells that followed meant no new supply of water to wash away the runoff, hurting the overall ecosystem.

As the population has increased in the Potomac River Basin over the years, the amount of nutrients and sediment entering the river has increased dramatically. But overall, the quality of the river has more or less "held its own," Wicks said.

That it hasn't worsened dramatically is a fragile sign of progress made over the years.

Conservation efforts such as wastewater treatment plant upgrades and measures to restrict storm water runoff have helped conservation efforts on the Potomac and in the Chesapeake Bay, experts said, but less than half of both bodies of water are within accepted thresholds.

Ed Merrifield, president of conservation group Potomac Riverkeeper, said the science behind the report card is sound, though he's not fond of using grades to express the river's water quality.

The data show that the Potomac is in bad shape, but the grade makes it seem better than it actually is, he said. Every year, the algae is getting worse in the freshwater part of the Potomac upstream of Washington, and Merrifield worries that it and similar threats won't be treated seriously by the public if they see any grade other than an "F".

Though acknowledging that the river's water quality decreased in 2010, Wicks noted that the river has been holding steady over the long term.

It's had several good years, she said, and the 2010 decline is within expectations of the scientists who produced the report. Increases in stream flow, like that caused by the storms in January and March, create water quality variability, though the overall trend for the Potomac remains consistently poor.

"People really care about the Chesapeake, which is great," Wicks said. But she added that the Potomac's water quality is unlikely to make a dramatic improvement any time soon.

Chesapeake Bay Report Card
NPR

Burt Shavitz, Face Of Burt's Bees, Dies At 80

Burt Shavitz, the eccentric co-founder of Burt's Bees skin care products, has died at age 80. His bearded face is on your lip balm.
NPR

Mechanization Brings Quick Change To Borneo Region Known For 'Slow Rice'

A company is introducing mechanized rice farming to the interior of Malaysian Borneo for the first time. Scientists say the change may damage the bonds between the local people and their environment.
NPR

U.N. Report Highlights Surprising Global Progress On Poverty Goals

In 2000 the world's leaders agreed on an ambitious plan for attacking global poverty by 2015. Called the Millennium Development Goals, these time-bound targets spurred an unprecedented aid effort that helped slash the share of people living in extreme poverty in half. Now nations are hammering out an even broader set of goals for 2030, but this time the task is proving highly controversial. The Millennium Development Goals were drafted in a highly casual way and that simple process proved the key to their success.
NPR

Hacking Team Breach Reveals Firm Sold Spying Tools To Repressive Regimes

What happens when one of the most notorious hacking companies gets hacked? That's the situation unfolding for one Italian company, which sells surveillance software to governments across the globe.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.