Over the centuries, the Potomac River has been the receptacle of industrial and sewage wastes, agricultural runoff, and acidic discharges from mining operations. Stench from sewage was so bad during the Civil War that President Lincoln is said to have been driven from his home on summer nights. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared the Potomac a “national disgrace.”

The ensuing pollution control effort sharply cut the amount of raw sewage and other pollutants dumped into the river, helping to restore its health. National fishing tournaments are now held in waters once filled with sewage and dead fish. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources recently began stocking trout in streams that were once biologically dead because of acid mine drainage. “The cleanup of the Potomac River is a national showcase for successful programs to restore highly polluted waters,” says a new report on the river.

But while the report, “Potomac River Watershed Visions Project,” found that much has improved, the river lingers “near the edge of endangerment” largely as the result of increasing demand for energy, land, and water by the basin’s expanding population.

As growth in the Potomac watershed increases, so does the amount of runoff from new housing and commercial developments. Human activities are now encroaching on the headwaters of the basin, traditionally the healthiest but most fragile elements of a watershed, the report warns. “Given projected population growth,” the report says, “the Potomac will continue to grow cleaner and healthier only by enlisting a broad array of programs, encompassing strong local visions and strategies bound together by an ambitious public education and involvement program.”

The report is the first step toward developing a holistic approach toward protecting the river’s environmental, cultural, and historical resources. Initiated with funding secured through legislation by Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, the report was developed by a team representing local, state, and federal governments; nonprofit groups; and business interests, to identify a long-term vision for “the nation’s river” that could serve as a model for developing watershed protection strategies.

The emphasis of the project was finding ways to “empower” local communities and grassroots conservation activities to protect local streams. At the same time, the project sought to bridge gaps between those local efforts — as well as programs carried out by federal, state and regional government agencies — to create a comprehensive blueprint for watershedwide protection.

Ultimately, the report says the success of the effort could be gauged in the future by increased participation by residents in conservation efforts; increased ability of governments, communities, businesses, and nonprofit groups to support the work; greater public support for investments that address the river’s environmental needs; and a healthier river system that contributes to the recovery of the Chesapeake Bay.

The task force preparing the report found “a surprising extent of natural and cultural conservation activities already under way in the Potomac basin.” There was less need for new programs to guide restoration efforts, the task force found, than the need “for full implementation of existing ones” and for “getting the word out.”

One problem, for example, is that while there are many locally focused activities, there are no major efforts to show how those actions link with others throughout a 14,670-square-mile drainage that begins at a tiny spring in West Virginia and ends 383 miles downstream where the river’s 11-mile-wide mouth merges with the Bay. Local land use decisions, the report notes, are best made at the local level but are crucial to continued environmental improvement throughout the entire basin.

To help create this watershedwide awareness, the report offers numerous suggestions. Among them:

  • Develop more links among environmental educators and citizen groups.
  • Develop a unified education and public awareness program that highlights the Potomac’s cultural and environmental heritage.
  • Develop and provide training, uniform standards, and certification for citizen stream monitoring, enabling volunteer monitors to help conduct reliable stream health assessments. Monitoring programs should pay special attention to headwaters, many of which are “backyard” streams.
  • Create and publicize a network of scenic byways and interpretive sites throughout the Potomac River basin. Produce a guide to field trip resources in the Potomac River basin.
  • In areas where there are no existing stream protection programs, “adopt a stream” programs should be promoted.
  • Improve cooperation and assistance between local governments and community groups.
  • Establish a basinwide committee of representatives from all regional governmental bodies.
  • Create an inventory of all current and past demonstration programs in the basin that reports on their accomplishments.
  • Encourage local governments to cooperate with and assist community groups.
  • Invest in conservation education for public and nonprofit managers and advocates on local land and water resources.

The next step for implementing the “visions” in the report is to convene a “Congress for the Potomac” to which leaders throughout the basin will be invited. The meeting is expected to take place in spring 1995. Meanwhile, the task force that wrote the report is compiling a clearinghouse of stream conservation efforts cited in the document.

Visions for the Potomac

The task force writing the report outlined six “visions” it had for the future of the Potomac watershed. They include:

  • More local strategies will exist to promote conservation efforts in every stream valley leading to the Potomac River. Communities’ visions and plans will recognize their unique “environmental address,” seeking to protect and enhance the many values associated with their streams and the Potomac River as a whole. Citizens’ groups will flourish, and aim for accomplishments that complement community visions.
  • Strengthened partnerships and capacities among citizens, government, and business will enable them to recognize, promote, and support locally led conservation. Dedication to community visions will lead to greater efforts to coordinate programs, bridge gaps, and achieve flexibility and efficiency in making needed local improvements possible.
  • Citizens will have greater access to decison-making processes, technical assistance, and information. Their expanded participation in government and community life will help to bring out community renewal as well as conservation of the lands and waters of the Potomac River basin. There will be a centralized source of information for issues in the Potomac watershed, and a coordinated network of local, state, and regional partners.
  • Increased public awareness of the Potomac as a special place. The public will understand and treasure the Potomac River’s unique resources. Enthusiastic support will develop for locally led conservation initiatives and greater investments in needed government and private programs.
  • Greater regional capacities to address river-related issues that transcend localities. Local and regional measures will assure continuing improvements in the Potomac River’s overall health and the ability of the basin’s residents to use and enjoy it.
  • Community renewal will be based both on a sound appreciation for the river’s values and on new economic development strategies that take advantage of environmental and heritage assets. Our grandchildren will fish, swim, and boat in clean, productive waters. They will hike, bike, jog, or ride horses along a network of trails designed to provide access to city centers, natural areas, and a host of cultural and historical sites.