- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

It’s not a monument or a museum, but the Potomac River skirting the nation’s capital is a major attraction for tourists and locals alike. So the tons of trash that travel down the river and its tributaries each year have prompted plans for an ambitious weekend cleanup.

On Saturday, at least 12,000 volunteers from the District, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are expected to track down litter and debris at more than 400 sites along the 383-mile Potomac River watershed.

For the past 21 years, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group, has organized the yearly cleanup of the watershed with the help of concerned citizens. Cleanup sites are also located along the river’s nine major tributaries, including the Anacostia River in the District.

“We hope we are removing less tons every year,” cleanup coordinator Ginny Harris said. “We want to show the community that it is unacceptable to illegally dump trash. We hope this changes the behaviors of the people.”

Last year, volunteers removed more than 280 tons of trash from the banks of the river. Along with thousands of plastic bags and tires, workers even found discarded shopping carts, plastic barrels, bathtubs and televisions.

But the Potomac’s poor health extends beyond trash and debris.

Curtis Dalpra, spokesman for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, said that although river vegetation and better sewage treatment plants improved the river’s water quality in the 1980s and 1990s, land development has made the river vulnerable to increased sediment and nutrient levels, which drain the water of dissolved oxygen.

“The dirtier the river is, the more difficult and expensive it is to treat that water for the drinking supply,” Mr. Dalpra said.

More than 5.8 million people live in and around the Potomac watershed, 75 percent of them in the Washington area. About 90 percent of the metropolitan area’s drinking water comes from the Potomac.

Efforts to improve the river’s health have been marred by fish kills and illegal trafficking of rockfish in its tributaries. And researchers are continuing to probe the intersex fish problem that has affected species along the Potomac and some of its tributaries.

The Potomac is the Chesapeake Bay’s third-largest tributary. According to recent reports released by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Bay has shown little improvement over the past year.

Still, the Alice Ferguson Foundation plans to continue working to clean the river and brighten its surrounding communities.

“There’s still a lot to be done,” Ms. Harris said, “but we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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