The vibrancy of our communities is directly tied to the health of the Potomac and livelihood of our local lands and streams. One of the wildest urban rivers in the country, the Potomac is home to a diverse array of plants and wildlife, and provides drinking water to nearly 5 million 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.
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State and local governments are working to develop better access to the Potomac and its tributaries. The Captain John Smith Trail is one of three national trails that runs nearly the entire length of the tidal portion of the Potomac River. In 2015, the National Park Service released a Potomac River Segment Plan for the trail that seeks to enhance water access sites and make the river accessible for millions of local residents and visitors.
Situated in the tidal waters of the Potomac, Mallows Bay and its ghost fleet are part of the Captain Smith Trail. Mallows Bay is currently under review by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to become the first National Marine Sanctuary in the Chesapeake Bay region.
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. Nine sites have been added since Potomac Conservancy’s last report in 2013. The EPA’s 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement includes a goal to have 300 new sites in the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. By scaling from the Bay-wide goal, Potomac Conservancy has established a benchmark of 325 total public access sites in the Potomac River region by 2025.
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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. Should water quality conditions continue to improve in the Potomac, it will become a more valuable resource for commercial and recreational fishing.
During a three-year period between 2009 and 2011, sport fish license sales grew by an average of 45 percent annually. In the past two decades, interest in fishing peaked in 2013 when 4,386 individuals purchased a fishing license; sales waned in the subsequent two years. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) regulates fishing in the main Potomac River Basin.
Potomac Conservancy set a target of 6,600 sport fish license sales by 2025, a 51 percent growth in sales from the peak year (2013). The benchmark is tied to a historic growth rate witnessed in 2009 to 2010 when sales increased by 51 percent in one year. In 2015, 3,078 individuals purchased a sport fishing license meeting 46.6 percent of the goal.
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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, but it should be noted that interest in Virginia’s riverside parks has increased over the years from 784,000 visitors in 2011 to 962,000 visitors in 2014.
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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 based on a study by the Outdoor Industry Association; an average of 74 percent of residents participate in outdoor activities in the top decile of states. The study found that outdoor recreation generates approximately $30.7 billion in consumer spending in the three states. While no research was available for the Potomac River Basin (which includes Washington, DC and parts of Pennsylvania), the topic is ripe for future study.