Petition to Lift Potomac Swim Ban Gains Momentum

By Cheryl Costello

The Washington, D.C., section of the Potomac River has made leaps and bounds in water quality over the past several years. But it’s still illegal to swim there without a special permit.

Waterkeepers and water access advocates are pushing to change that, allowing people to enjoy Our Nation’s River. Bay Bulletin spoke to a pair of distance swimmers who just swam an incredible 20.5-mile stretch of the Potomac to draw attention to the cause.

Andie Nelson and Brian Jaskot accomplished the open-water endurance swim in just over 10 hours. They want their swim to have a ripple effect, honoring the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and sending a message that D.C. waters are swimmable even though a swim ban remains in place.

“I personally have been swimming in the Potomac for years,” says Nelson. “I have three little kids, so does Brian. We would not be swimming for 8 to 10 hours in this river if it wasn’t clean and was a risk to our health.”

Jaskot says there is untapped potential for swimmers like them. “There are some good beaches on the river or proposed areas that are safe to get in. That would be great for recreation and for people who want to be in the water and live so close to it.”

Local paddlers are also in support of lifting the ban. David Cottingham with the Washington Canoe Club has spent 40 years on the water in D.C. He took us out for a paddle, showing us the water-level view of the Key Bridge and the Washington Monument. “It’s like an escape from being in Washington.”

And he’s quick to point out that there are others with the same idea. “The fact that all these people are out here, they wouldn’t be out here if the water were still polluted. Forty years ago they weren’t out here,” he said.

As we head into summer, Cottingham joins the Potomac Riverkeeper Network in asking D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to lift the swim ban.

“D.C. is the only city in America that prohibits swimming because of their sewage discharges from their combined sewer system,” says Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. “The bottom line is D.C. has no right to take this public resource away from the people it belongs to and say, ‘You can’t swim here because we haven’t fixed our combined sewer system.’”

A spokeswoman for D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) says, in part, “DOEE’s goal is to allow swimming in District waters. We are encouraged to see recent data indicating that the Potomac is often safe for swimming. To remove the swimming ban, DOEE is taking steps to update our regulations and water quality standards to be consistent with EPA’s most recent science and recommended standards.”

The ban is the subject of a petition started by Potomac Riverkeeper Network to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

“We know that there are plenty of swimmable areas upwards of 60-70 percent of the time,” says Naujoks.

The riverkeeper organization runs a water quality monitoring program, testing every week at 30 locations and reporting the numbers to a publicly-available swim guide.

“I think the river is swimmable. The data show that. That doesn’t mean there are any facilities for people to swim,” points out Cottingham, going back to the water access issue.

The ban does allow swimming events to take place through individual permits. Nelson and Jaskot’s unassisted swim was part of the D.C. Marathon Swim.

“If people are able to get in and swim and enjoy the water, it would be hard not to then want to protect it,” Nelson says.

Bay Bulletin will keep you updated if parts of the ban are lifted this summer.