Potomac Conservancy

STATE OF THE
NATION'S RIVER 2016

#PotomacReportCard


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Overall Grade

OVERALL GRADE

The Potomac's on the mend, but not in the clear!


After decades of decline, the Potomac River is on its way to recovery.

Pollution levels are decreasing, fisheries are rebounding, and more people are getting outside to enjoy the river. The 2016 grade is up from a C in 2013 and D in 2011. Efforts to restore the Potomac are indeed working.

In fact, the Potomac is the only major Chesapeake Bay tributary to achieve short- and long-term nutrient reductions in its headwaters.

But our hometown river is not in the clear yet.

Polluted runoff from urban and suburban communities remains the largest barrier to a clean and restored Potomac. This growing threat puts at risk all the gains we have made in recent years.

Now more than ever, we must stay the course. Together, we can achieve a swimmable, fishable Potomac by 2025.

Hedrick Belin, President

Hedrick Belin, President

Hedrick Belin, President
reportcard@potomac.org

A

80% – 100%

B

60% – 79%

C

40% – 59%

D

20% – 39%

F

0% – 19%

*

NOT SCORED

WHY IT MATTERS

The Potomac is more than just a river. It’s the life-sustaining source of drinking water for our region, a world-class kayaking destination, the driving force behind our local economy, and home to hundreds of rare plants and animals.

Best of all, it’s ours. Ours to enjoy. Ours to protect.

Learn what’s going right – and wrong – for the Potomac and how you can help.

Drinking Water

DRINKING WATER


Drinking water source for nearly five million local residents

Creeks

LOCAL COMMUNITIES


Swimmable, fishable local waters for children and families

Trails

TRAILS & SCENERY


Treasured playground for runners, cyclists, paddlers, and nature lovers

Wildlife

DIVERSE WILDLIFE


Home to over 1,400 plants and animals, and 200 globally rare species

STATE OF THE POTOMAC

THE GOOD NEWS

  • The top 3 pollutants in the Potomac – nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment – are on the decline
  • Shad, white perch, and other common game fish are making a comeback
  • Over 25 percent of our region’s land is protected, providing local streams with clean, healthy water
  • More people are experiencing the river through fishing, water access trails, and state parks

THE BAD NEWS

  • Polluted urban runoff is the only growing source of pollution to the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay
  • Predatory blue catfish and snakeheads are invading our waters, putting shad and other fish at risk
  • Poorly planned development in once-rural areas is paving over river friendly forests
  • Underwater grasses and water clarity have been slow to recover
RIVER HEALTH INDICATOR

POLLUTION


When the Potomac River and local streams have excessive levels of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment, it can make our waters unsafe to swim in and harm wildlife and plants. Encouragingly, levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment have been decreasing in the Potomac River since 1985, with progress varying by source and state. Pollution flowing into the Potomac from agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, and point sources is on the decline.

More About Pollution

A
Waste Water Treatment

WASTEWATER TREATMENT

Wastewater treatment plant discharges are a primary source of pollution to the Potomac River. Between 2012 and 2015, the number and portion of wastewater treatment plants in the Potomac River basin that meet the EPA’s water quality standards increased by 13 percent…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Waste Water Treatment
A-
Nitrogen

NITROGEN

Nitrogen levels have improved in the long term (since 1985) and in the short term (since 2004). The EPA set a pollution reduction goal for nitrogen loads in the Potomac at 43.2 million pounds per year by 2025…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Nitrogen
A
Phosphorus

PHOSPHORUS

Phosphorus levels have improved in the long term (since 1985) and in the short term (since 2004). The EPA set a pollution reduction goal for phosphorus loads in the Potomac at 3.9 million pounds per year by 2025…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Phosphorus
B+
Sediment

SEDIMENT

Sediment levels have improved in the long-term (since 1985) and in the short-term (since 2004). The EPA set a pollution reduction goal for sediment loads in the Potomac at 2.075 billion pounds per year by 2025…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Sediment
RIVER HEALTH INDICATOR

FISH


After decades of decline, the Potomac is now healthy enough to support growing populations of common game fish including shad and white perch.

Some fish species continue to struggle, but long-term trends signal that we’re beginning to reap the benefits of pollution-reduction and restoration efforts.

Fish are good indicator species for the overall health of the river because they are impacted by a host of environmental factors. An abundance and variety of fish species in a river is often a sign of good water quality. Fish and other aquatic animals depend on oxygen-rich waters that support healthy habitats and food sources.

More About Fish

A
Waste Water Treatment

AMERICAN SHAD

American shad are a well-known herring in the Chesapeake Bay region. Pollution, dams, and overfishing threatened their population in our region. Shad are now thriving in the Potomac and their populations have surpassed restoration goals…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Waste Water Treatment
B
Striped Bass

STRIPED BASS

The abundance of young striped bass in the Potomac has increased significantly over the decades, though we have seen a decline in their numbers over the last ten years; this trend may result in lower adult populations in the out-years…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Striped Bass
A
White Perch

WHITE PERCH

The abundance of juvenile white perch has increased significantly over the decades, and we have seen particularly healthy numbers over the last five years; this trend may give a boost to adult populations in the out-years…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

White Perch
B-
Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth Bass

A Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) annual study indicates young smallmouth bass in the middle Potomac are at their highest levels since 2007. As John Mullican from DNR explains, “That means in the coming years, fishermen will start to see a greater number of smallmouth bass."…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Smallmouth Bass
Not Scored
Northern Snakehead

Northern Snakehead (Invasive Threat)

Since they were first spotted in the Potomac’s tidal waters over a decade ago, northern snakehead fish populations in the river have reached 20,000 — rivaling that of largemouth bass, confirmed Joseph W. Love, Tidal Bass Manager at Maryland Department of Natural Resources…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Northern Snakehead
Not Scored
Blue Catfish

Blue Catfish
(Invasive Threat)

The largest species of catfish in North America, the blue catfish is a non-native predator that appears to be growing quickly in size and population in the tidal Potomac. Experts from Virginia and Maryland agree their growing presence in local waters spells likely trouble for other fish species…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Blue Catfish
RIVER HEALTH INDICATOR

HABITAT


Though overall pollution levels have decreased in recent years, underwater grasses and water clarity have been slow to recover. While dissolved oxygen levels are going up — a mark of a healthier river — amounts of chlorophyll a and water clarity are going down. Tidal grasses are faring better in recent years, but are far from meeting restoration goals set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

More About Habitat

C-
Tidal Water Quality

TIDAL WATER QUALITY

Data on dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and chlorophyll a (a measure of algae) offer a snapshot of tidal water quality in the Potomac River. Improved dissolved oxygen and water clarity in the Potomac can produce ideal conditions and habitat for fish and other aquatic life…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Tidal Water Quality
C-
Underwater Grasses

UNDERWATER GRASSES

Underwater grasses provide habitat for fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife, and they require clean water. Restoring healthy tidal grass beds to the tidal Potomac goes hand-in-hand with other water quality improvements. Several restoration programs have aimed to bring grasses back to the Potomac…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Underwater Grasses
C-
Forested Buffers

FORESTED BUFFERS

Shoreline trees (forested buffers) offer crucial protection from harmful effects of pollution, sediment, and water temperature fluctuations in local streams and creeks. Forests in rural Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia provide the cleanest waters to the Potomac River…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Forested Buffers
D
Stream Water Quality

STREAM (NON-TIDAL)
WATER QUALITY

Impaired water quality is a common challenge for our nation’s rivers and streams, and the Potomac River is no different. To assess the health of non-tidal streams and wadeable rivers, the Chesapeake Bay Benthic Monitoring Program developed a special health index in 2012 that combines data from a variety of monitoring programs…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Stream Water Quality
RIVER HEALTH INDICATOR

LAND


Sustainable land is key to the future health of the Potomac River and its inhabitants. While a significant portion of the land in the Potomac region is considered protected, population growth and the infrastructure to support it are paving over river friendly forests. Man-made surfaces like roads, housing, and parking lots are increasing, while forest coverage continues to decline.

More About Land

C+
Land Use

CURRENT LAND USE

The region has seen a slight increase in developed land and a decrease in forest and cropland. Pollution from urban runoff has been increasing over the last decade and is directly correlated to newly developed acres. The current land use grade is tied to the percentage of land that is forested in the Potomac Watershed…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Land Use
B-
Urban Land Use

URBAN-SUBURBAN LAND
USE IMPROVEMENTS

The health of the Chesapeake Bay rests on the ability of our cities to responsibly protect local waters and embrace river friendly development. Stripped of most natural land cover, urban areas are a top source of polluted runoff to local rivers…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Urban Land Use
B
Rural Land Use

RURAL LAND USE IMPROVEMENTS

The region’s agricultural lands remain the single largest contributor of pollution to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Policies that ban phosphates in fertilizers and promote Best Management Practices (BMPs) on farmlands are helping to change that; pollution from agriculture is declining in the Potomac River…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Rural Land Use
A
Protected Lands

PROTECTED LANDS

According to a 2013 US Geological Survey (USGS) report, 26.6 percent of land in the Potomac River region, or 1.9 million acres, is protected. The number of acres protected has increased since 2011, when 1.8 million acres of land (25 percent of the region) was protected…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Protected Lands
RIVER HEALTH INDICATOR

PEOPLE


Analyzing recreational use of the Potomac and how people connect with this treasured resource is an important way to understand the accessibility and condition of our special outdoor places. Hiking, fishing, paddling, birding, and bicycling along the Potomac are just a few of the many ways the river enriches the quality of life for local residents.

More About People

B+
Public Access Points

PUBLIC ACCESS POINTS

State and local governments are working to develop better access to the Potomac and its tributaries. According to the US Geological Survey, the public has access to 255 waterway sites in the Potomac River region, including approximately 150 sites directly along the river…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Public Access Points
C
Sport Fishing Licenses

SPORT FISHING LICENSES

Encouragingly, the number of sport fishing licenses issued for the Potomac River has increased in recent years, signaling greater interest in this outdoor pastime and a rebound in some fisheries…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Sport Fishing Licenses
Not Scored
State Park Visitation

STATE PARK VISITATION

Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia have wonderful state parks, including several that directly access the Potomac River. Visitation to the four parks in each state that directly abut the river has been holding steady in recent years…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

State Park Visitation
B
Outdoor Recreation

OUTDOOR RECREATION

Outdoor recreation affects local and state economies. Participating in outdoor activities can also fuel a connection to the environment and a sense of stewardship. An approximate 49 percent of residents in Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia participate in outdoor activities each year…

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK

Outdoor Recreation

HELP THE POTOMAC GET AN A+


Polluted runoff is the only growing source of pollution to the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay and it is harming local water quality, habitat, and public health.

But fear not!

We can right the course for the Potomac. After all, the river is ours to protect. Become part of a growing local movement that fights for:

  • Fewer chemicals in our drinking water
  • Safe and pollution-free streams and creeks
  • Protected riverside forests and accessible parks
  • Healthy and thriving wildlife habitat

Take action today and right the course for our water, our Potomac!

Keep Informed

STAY INFORMED

Sign up for river updates and get
the latest clean water news.
potomac.org/river-update

Volunteer

VOLUNTEER

Get your hands dirty for clean water by joining a local river cleanup.
potomac.org/events

Donate

DONATE

Support clean water initiatives that keep pollution out of local creeks and streams.
potomac.org/donate

Together we can ensure the Potomac River is home to clean water, healthy lands, and vibrant communities!

Potomac Conservancy

Empowering a local movement for clean water

Potomac Conservancy is the region’s leading clean water advocate, fighting to ensure the Potomac River is home to clean drinking water, healthy lands, and vibrant communities.

Founded in 1993, we drive the region’s clean water movement by providing the tools that empower local river champions to lead the charge for clean drinking water, healthy lands, and safe access to the river. We combine the grassroots power of 17,000 members and online activists with local land conservation and policy initiatives to strengthen the Voice of the Nation’s River. Potomac Conservancy is the only independent nonprofit that focuses exclusively on the Potomac River.

Potomac.org


About the report
Potomac Conservancy’s State of the Nation’s River report presents and assesses data on five significant river health indicators: pollution, fish, habitat, land, and people. Using an established baseline and set of benchmarks, the Conservancy measures restoration progress and assigns the Potomac River a grade. The overall grade has been weighted to account for non-quantifiable, inaccessible, or outdated data on water quality threats. The threats include, but are not limited to harmful algal blooms, warming waters, endocrine disrupting compounds, PCBs, and aquatic diseases.

With the media?
For media inquiries contact Patricia Brooks at 202-351-1757. Find quotes, images, and more at potomac.org/river-report-press. Questions? Call us at 301-608-1188 x202 or email reportcard@potomac.org.

Credits
Melissa Diemand: Publication Editor; research and writing
Alicia Crawford: Writing and editing
Corey Tiani, pointpixl llc.: Design and layout
Chris Lowden: Web Development
Jackie Zubrzycki: Research and writing

We thank Dick and Nancy Raines and our members for their generous philanthropic support that made this report possible.

Special thanks to
Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program, Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, James River Association, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Park Service, National Park Service —National Capital Region, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Chesapeake Bay, Outdoor Industry Association, Potomac River Fisheries Commission, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, US Forest Service, US Geological Survey, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and West Virginia Parks.