Potomac River Gets A 'D' In Health | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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
WAMU 88.5

Art Beat With Lauren Landau, July 28

You can see two solo exhibits featuring work that speaks in metaphor.
NPR

Rust Devastates Guatemala's Prime Coffee Crop And Its Farmers

Central American coffee farmers are facing off against a deadly fungus that has wiped out thousands of acres of crops. Coffee companies like Starbucks are pooling money to support them in the fight.
NPR

When Did Companies Become People? Excavating The Legal Evolution

The Supreme Court has been granting more rights to corporations, including some regarded as those solely for individuals. But Nina Totenberg finds the company-to-person shift has a long history.
NPR

What It's Like To Own Your Very Own Harrier Jump Jet

The Harrier Jump Jet is known for vertical take-offs and landings. It also has an accident-prone track record, but that didn't dissuade one pilot from buying his dream plane.

Leave a Comment

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