By Jean A. Flanagan
Thanks to the efforts of local jurisdictions who have heeded the call to improve their sewage treatment systems, the health of the Potomac River has improved. So said Chad Thompson of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Thompson was armed with a report by the Potomac Conservancy, which gave the river a “B-minus” grade. “The Potomac’s on the mend, but not in the clear,” the report said.
The Potomac Conservancy is a nonprofit, community organization whose mission is to “safeguard the lands and waters of the Potomac River and its tributaries and connect people to this national treasure.”
The report provided a good news/bad news scenario.
“The good news is the top three pollutants are on the decline,” the report said. “The bad news is that urban runoff is the only growing source of pollution to the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.”
[private] Using data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Chesapeake Bay Program and the US Geological Society, the Potomac Conservancy paints an improving picture of the river.
According to the data, the number of wastewater treatment plants in the Potomac basin that meet the EPA’s water quality standards increased by 13 percent since 2012. The amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment is on the decline.
At the same time, the numbers of American Shad, Striped Bass or Rockfish and Small mouth Bass have increased, based on surveys of juvenile fish.
The bad news is the number of Northern Snakehead and Blue Catfish have also increased. These are invasive species and threaten the health of the river.
Underwater grasses, forested buffers have diminished or stayed the same, therefore so have the tidal water quality and the stream water quality. Those areas have been slow to recover, the report said.
Land use in the Potomac River basin continues to be a concern for the health of the river. Development has increased and land used for forest and crops has decreased. As mentioned before, urban stormwater runoff continues to be the only growing source of pollution in the Potomac. The destruction of forest and farmland for the development of roads, parking lots and housing are a major contributor to the pollution of the river.
Agriculture, which has been the largest polluter of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay, has taken steps to reverse that trend, especially in West Virginia. In 2013, West Virginia met 98 percent of its federal Best Management Practices goals for 2025. West Virginia also reported reaching and exceeding it’s Watershed Improvement Plan goals far ahead of schedule.
Protected land has increased in the Potomac basin from 25 percent in 2011 to 26.6 percent in 2013. It may not seem like much, but it represents an increase of 100,000 acres of land protected by conservation easements.
The improvements in the health and well-being of the Potomac River have not gone unnoticed by the people who enjoy the water. This includes those who like fishing and other outdoor recreational activities. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, nine public access points along the Potomac have been added since 2013, bring the total to 255.
According to the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the number of fishing licenses and state park visits have increased since 2013.
A healthy Potomac River provides clean drinking water for millions of people and industries, a place to enjoy the outdoors in a natural atmosphere and a home for thousands of plants and animals.
You can help improve the health of the Potomac by conserving water when possible and don’t throw trash or chemicals in streams or sewers. The Potomac River is a natural resource, here for everyone to enjoy.