The Potomac River provides much of the District’s drinking water, but is falling into worsening condition owing to rural farming and urban development, an environmental group said Thursday.
The findings are included in the Silver Spring-based Potomac Conservancy’s fifth annual “State of the Nation’s River” report, which gives the Potomac’s water quality a D rating - one notch below its previous D-plus rating in 2007.
The group, established in 1993, attributed the 400-mile-long river’s deteriorating quality to upstream farming contamination and deforestation, as well as downstream development and sewage contributions brought on by population growth.
“We know what needs to be done, but this region is going to have to find the political will to make hard choices,” said group President Hedrick Belin. “Investing a dollar today to reduce pollution will return clear water dividends for years to come.”
The report found the river’s pollutants are coming from “two worlds” - the upstream rural areas of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, whose tributary rivers and streams feed into the Potomac and the downstream, urban communities in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District that sit along the river’s banks and continue to expand.
The report laid partial blame on the rural areas, pointing out that forest growth has largely stalled upstream from the Potomac and that fertilizer and livestock waste from farms often contribute chemicals that contaminate the river.
However, the report focused more on the “serious threat” of rapid development in the urban, downstream areas, pointing out that the population within the river’s basin has grown by 5 percent since 2007 to more than 6 million people.
Population growth has led to more development and paving of land, which, the group said, has in turn disrupted the natural water cycle by preventing rainwater and melted snow from seeping into the ground. The results, according to the report, have been increased runoff, floods and erosion.
Removal of trees along the Potomac has exacerbated runoff and erosion, the report said.
“In an increasingly interconnected world, large rivers like the Potomac act as powerful barometers to gauge how well we are treating the environment,” University of Richmond professor Todd Lookingbill said, adding that current trends will have “troubling consequences.”
The conservancy offered several ways to improve the Potomac’s health, such as planting more trees along the river and its contributing streams, and restraining development to curb sprawl and protect existing forests.
The group also suggested that government officials work upstream to prevent pollution, better regulating industrial farms and promoting better management at smaller ones.
“In tight economic times, we need county, state and federal agencies to step up to the plate and strengthen their codes and ordinances,” Mr. Belin said.