- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Nose- and earplugs are kayaker Joe Stumpfel’s main line of defense against bacteria in the Potomac River.

The 28-year-old Baltimore resident, who goes white-water kayaking five days a week during the summer, does not want to get an infection or an illness from what could be in the water, so he keeps his sinuses closed, he says. Because he likes kayaking in the challenging conditions after a hard rain, he faces a higher concentration of pollutants.

“Usually when you’re kayaking, you end up flipping over several times,” says Mr. Stumpfel, a competitive freestyle kayaker and marketing director of Springriver Corp. in Rockville. “You try to not ingest any water. If you get water in your mouth, you spit it out.”

Kayakers such as Mr. Stumpfel, along with canoeists, rowers, boaters, anglers and swimmers, generally have access to the Potomac River and some of its tributaries but face potential closures and warnings when the water is contaminated.

Government agencies and citizen groups monitor the safety of the water for drinking, recreation and other uses. Water-quality information is posted at contaminated water bodies and on the Web sites and phone lines of government agencies handling the information.

“The information that is out there is focused on natural resource protection, and less information is directed toward recreation,” says Meredith Lathbury, vice president for conservation and general counsel at the Potomac Conservancy, a nonprofit group in Silver Spring that tracks river data and works with landowners to implement land practices beneficial to water quality.

“You can find it if you know what you’re looking for,” she says.

Several state agencies gather that information to monitor rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs for water quality as required under the nation’s Clean Water Act. The U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, for example, gauges streams and rivers for potential flooding and provides real-time water-quality information.

However, a swimmer has to know what level of bacteria is safe and how to interpret the data, Ms. Lathbury says.

“Generally, the upstream portions are safer than the metro area, but you still have to watch for storm events,” she says. “The lower portions of the river getting tidal action [are] also safer.”

The Potomac River watershed covers more than 14,500 square miles and includes several tributaries, including the Anacostia River in the District and the Shenandoah River in Virginia. The Potomac River begins at Tucker County, W.Va., and extends more than 380 miles through the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.

In the District, where swimming is prohibited in the Potomac River because of high bacterial levels, the D.C. Department of Health monitors bacterial and several other biological, chemical and physical parameters in the Potomac River, the Anacostia River and smaller tributaries. The Maryland Department of the Environment in Baltimore monitors the Potomac and its tributaries for the same parameters and issues fish-consumption advisories for game species. County health departments monitor beach waters in Maryland and issue recreation advisories, as does the D.C. Department of Health.

“We can’t monitor everywhere all of the time. We do monitor where the greatest needs and risks are, so we can characterize Maryland’s rivers,” says George Harman, program manager for environmental assessments and standards for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

In Virginia, the Department of Health in Richmond monitors the state’s beaches for bacteria during the summer and issues fish-consumption advisories from data provided by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), also in Richmond. The DEQ, with the help of more than 160 citizen groups, monitors the tributaries in Virginia but not the Potomac because the portion of the Potomac that runs along the state’s border into the Chesapeake Bay is under Maryland’s jurisdiction.

“We aim to collect data that is representative of water quality as a whole,” says Bryant Thomas, water monitoring, planning and assessment supervisor for DEQ’s Northern Virginia regional office in Woodbridge.

Monitoring typically is done every one to two months at monitoring sites throughout Virginia and more often when problems occur. Electronic meters placed in the water measure water temperature, acidity, salinity and dissolved oxygen, which is an indicator of pollution. Samples are sent to the state laboratory to check for solid matter, nutrients and bacteria, specifically fecal coliform and E. coli, a subset organism.

Fecal coliform is an indicator organism that does not harm humans but points to the presence of other bacteria and fecal waste. Fecal waste can enter waterways after a rainstorm in areas where sewage and storm-water drainage pipes are combined.

“A lot of diseases and illnesses can be transmitted through waste,” says James Beckley, water-quality data liaison for the DEQ. “If we find a certain level of bacteria, it’s a fairly good indicator people can become sick from something else.”

After a heavy storm, several areas of the Potomac River will not meet federal guidelines, says Curtis Dalpra, communication manager for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, a nonregulatory agency in Rockville that works with and advises the states of the Potomac watershed on water-quality research.

“Bacterial levels in a river are capable of changing very quickly and drastically,” Mr. Dalpra says.

The Anacostia Watershed Society, a nonprofit environmental group in Bladensburg, raises yellow flags to indicate water-quality problems at two boating access points at the Anacostia Community Boathouse and the Bladensburg Waterfront Park. The flags indicate a high level of fecal coliform and are used during the main boating season from June through October.

“The pollutants aren’t as concentrated in the Potomac as the Anacostia,” says Jim Connolly, executive director for the Anacostia Watershed Society. “It’s magnified more on the Anacostia because it’s more urban.”

An urban, built environment with impervious surfaces does not slow down water runoff and catch debris as do soil and the natural environment, Mr. Connolly says, adding, “While the river is polluted, it does hold incredible recreational value and potential.”

Flat-water kayaker Amy Knox of Laurel says she feels safe using the Rocky Gorge Reservoir in Laurel.

“I like to paddle out there because I know that’s my drinking water,” says Ms. Knox, who uses guidebooks and online message boards to check for water access and safety. “I don’t worry when I’m out there that I’m going to get anything.”

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