How far the Potomac River come since its most-polluted years, when President Johnson called it a “disgrace.” It looks so majestic now, rolling past the iconic buildings of Washington, D.C. Yet the thought of touching its water with bare skin remains troubling. And D.C.’s tap water still tastes a little funky. Upstream, waste from farms dumps into its waters, and downstream the detritus of urban life is washed over the banks after heavy rain.
So despite its drastic improvement, the Potomac tops this year's list of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” which was compiled by the nonprofit American Rivers with the help of grassroots river conservation groups around the country. The report does not rank rivers based on a complicated system of measurable metrics, but instead makes a subjective decision based on the significance of the river, the dangers that threaten it, and the possibility for people to alter its fate in the coming year.
Rivers are vulnerable in many ways: They can become clogged with farm waste and storm water runoff, like the Potomac; stoppered by the development of dams, like the Chattahoochee; or threatened by natural gas operations, like the Hoback. In all 10 cases listed on the report, though, American Rivers believes people could mitigate some of the threats by speaking up for their rivers. “Being an advocate for your water and your river is really key,” says the group’s Stacey Detwiler.
In the case of the Potomac, the group is particularly worried about the disintegration of protection measures the Clean Water Act put into place. “We've seen a number of different comprehensive and fairly broad attacks to roll back the Clean Water Act,” Detwiler says. The small streams and wetlands that feed into larger rivers are at risk, and the group is worried about an onslaught of bills that would further weaken protections for the water system. If Congress weakens the Clean Water Act, the Potomac isn’t the only river that will suffer. But for American Rivers it serves as a stand-in for all the bodies of water that could start reverting back to their former, nasty states without proper federal protections.
But writing or calling political representatives isn’t the only way to help protect rivers like the Potomac. One of the growing sources of pollution for the river is stormwater run-off: rain water that gathers dirt, chemicals, and trash as it flows through urban streets and dumps into the river. Green infrastructure like green roofs and rainwater cisterns can help make better use of that water and keep pollution out of the river. And Detwiler says participating in river cleanup projects makes a difference, too. “It makes it so obvious when you see trash flowing into the river,” she says. “When you drop it on the street, it ends up in the Potomac.”
America's 10 Most Endangered Rivers
1. Potomac River
2. Green River
3. Chattahoochee River
4. Missouri River
5. Hoback River.
6. Grand River
7. Skykomish River
8. Crystal River
9. Coal River
10. Kansas River