Summer Swimming and District Waterways

Jun 26, 2012

Is it safe for District residents to swim in the Potomac? In short, no.

When temperatures reach unbearable heights, the Potomac -- as well as the Anacostia and Rock Creek -- may look enticing. But taking a dip at the wrong time can be the equivalent of doing the backstroke in a cesspool reports Darryl Fears in Tuesday's Health and Science section. After a storm, some water pipes get inundated with untreated waste water and chemically laced storm water, which is then dumped into the rivers and creek. This can also happen in Prince Georges County. Bacteria await any host with scraped or scratched skin.

Ed Merrifield of the nonprofit Potomac Riverkeeper was online Tuesday June 26 to chat about quality of water and swimming conditions.


Let's get started.

Hi, I am wondering about the safety of swimming in the Potomac and its tributaries around Virginia's Northern Neck, such as Sandy Point, or Westmoreland State Park. Thank you!

This is another example of "It depends."  Much of the time swimming shouldn't be a problem.  However there have been major, harmful  algae problems in the past in those areas lasting many days or weeks.  It is impossible to give a blanket "yes" or "no" to any area.   

Looks grotty to me.

If  the water looks bad or filthy, that's a good reason to stay out.  Why gamble with your health?


Hi. How can we find out about how safe the little creeks (like tributaries to Rock Creek) are? I'd love for my boys to splash around in them, but not if they're going to get sick. If it makes a difference, I'm in Montgomery County.

While Montgomey County doesn't have combined sewer overflow problems, the problems are more with the storm runoff after a big rain (as Darryl Fears mentions in the article).  Staying out of the creeks for a day or two after a rain event is the safest approach.

Have there been any instances of flesh-eating bacteria in this area? I've heard about the recent case of the woman who was injured while ziplining in Georgia, and I think I've heard of cases in North Carolina and Tennessee (including some kind of organism that can get in a person's nose and affect the brain). As an avid kayaker (who rarely tips over, but you never know) on various rivers, creeks, and marshes in Maryland and Virginia (as well as parts of the Bay), I'm wondering how concerned I should be, now and perhaps in the foreseeable future (as climate zones are shifting northward).

I understand it's been years since this type of problem has occurred.  Over a decade ago a paddler had in infected leg (he recovered).  Anyone who spends time on the water these days should pay attention to open sores and cuts and clean them as soon as possible.  

If swimming in the District is ill-advised, why are triathletes allowed to swim each year?

The formal answer is that the City Council passed a law stating that it is ok for this to happen a couple of times a year - assuming proper precautions are taken.  the problem is that in health situations like these we deal with probabilities.  So far so good.  As I understand it, only one swim has had to be cancelled because of rain events, and in the others no one has said they have become ill from the swim.

How about those of us who are on the water almost everyday. Do we need to be even more conscious of water quality? And how can we be proactive in protecting our health while still enjoying recreation on the river?

Paddlers and Rowers and some of the best activists for clean rivers and streams.  And some of the best white-water paddlers love to get out during and immediately after a rain event.  At those times, do your best to keep the water out of your mouth and eyes and away from open sores.  

I certainly do not dispute your statements about the safety of the Potomac in the DC area, however, I think you are leaving out important information about the safety of the water outside of the immediate metropolitan area. Many of us own homes farther down the Potomac where the water is quite clean (we are in King George). I think it is a disservice to implicate the entire river and possibly affect the value of homes that are in areas of the river that are very safe.

If we work to get rid of the algae problems, there would be clean water all the time in most of those areas.

Most of the five million people who live in the Washington metro region don't think about swimming in the waters around DC.  However, these waters are designated as "swimmable."   This means there is still hope to clean them.  It will take everyone working together to make this happen.

Is Giardiasis a danger in local waters?

I don't believe that giardiasis is a major problem in this area.  Our water suppliers will tell you to boil your water if immuno-compromised (for this and other reasons), but overall I don't believe it has been a serious issue for those in the water.

Can you explain the potential risks of rowing, paddle boarding, kayaking etc on the Anacostia? I love the Anacostia River but I am concerned about getting the water on my skin, eyes, etc...

It's difficult to answer that question in forms of a risk.  There are many, many people who enjoy using both the Anacostia and have never had a problem.  I have had the river on my skin perhaps hundreds of times and have never had a problem.   Enjoy our rivers, but use common sense if something doesn't seem right.

Totally off base question but if the water isn't ok to swim in at certain times - how's the drinking water after a storm? I live in PG county and spend a good portion of time in DC.

The water for PG County comes from the Potomac at Great Falls and also some from the Patuxent.  Our water suppliers will tell you the water "meets or exceeds all the EPA's requirements."   This is a topic for another time.

Our time is up.  

For your friends who don't use the Potomac regularly, remind them that the best and safest drinking water comes from healthy rivers and streams.

Thanks to all those who participated.  

In This Chat
Ed Merrifield
Ed Merrifield is President and Riverkeeper of Potomac Riverkeeper Incorporated. As head of the local nonprofit organization, Merrifield works to protect the environment and quality of water in both the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The Potomac alone supplies drinking water to over 5 million residents in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District. The organization supports anti-pollution programs, raises funds and educates the community about water safety.
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