Pollution down, fish recovering in Potomac

River’s health given grade of C in conservancy’s report

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The Potomac River earned an overall grade of C on its 2013 State of the Nation’s River report card, a step in the right direction from its previous D, conservationists said, but a score that leaves much room for improvement.

Pollution is down and fish populations are up, according to the Potomac Conservancy’s report, but the growth rate of underwater grass — a key indicator of a healthy river — dropped below 40 percent for the first time in seven years.

“Our 2013 report shows the Potomac River is moving toward recovery,” said Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy. “The report also documents some troubling signs that are on the horizon.”

Though still a problem, wastewater levels earned an A-minus from the conservancy for reaching an 82 percent compliancy rate for treatment facilities to meet water quality standards. Nitrogen loads were down, as were sediment loads. Phosphorus levels, however, remain a problem.

And while more than 50 percent of the nontidal streams in the Potomac River Basic had good or fair water quality, nearly 37 percent of those streams were in poor or very poor condition.

“We are still learning what a restored Potomac might look like,” said Claire Buchanan, associate director of Aquatic Habitats at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. “We’re finding out achieving one goal of the ecosystem does not necessarily mean achieving the goal of other features.”

The report covers five key indicators of the river’s health: fish, habitat, pollution, land and people.

Last year the Potomac was named America’s Most Endangered River by the American Rivers group.

“It’s a mixed set of grades there, and no big surprises,” said Rich Batiuk, senior vice resident for science at the Environmental Protection Agency. “There’s been good, solid progress on the wastewater front, but there’s more work to do.”

Mr. Belin said the biggest threat to the river is polluted rainwater runoff, the result of the “explosion of development” that led to impermeable surfaces that cannot absorb rain water.

The pollution caused by runoff is increasing, according to the conservancy’s report, and the only way to address it is to work with property owners and local leaders to ensure smart building practices are applied to future development projects.

Mr. Belin said the conservancy plans a three-pronged approach to cutting back on pollution: working to increase funding for water programs, strengthening regulatory laws at the local level and establishing programs that provide incentives to property owners “so they can do the right thing.”

“The fate of the nation’s river is in the hands of local planning boards, city council members and commissioners,” Mr. Belin said. “At the end of the day, we need leadership at the local level in terms of solutions. The fight at the local level is where this will either be won or lost.”

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