by Penelope Gross, Vice Chair, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors & Chair, MWCOG Chesapeake Bay and Water Resources Policy Committee
Recently there have been a number of media stories regarding the state of the Potomac River. To help place this information in the proper context, it’s important to know that Potomac River water quality has improved dramatically during the past 40 years and our region is investing heavily to assure continued improvement. Once called a “national disgrace” by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the river has been the beneficiary of major clean-up efforts within the 50-mile stretch that flows through the metropolitan Washington region and is now recognized as a national success story.
While we know that much work still needs to be done to improve our local streams and the Chesapeake Bay, it is important that we acknowledge the great progress that has been made and recognize that investments by local governments, wastewater utilities, and farmers are making, and have made, a significant difference.
As the largest urban area within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, with a population of 5 million (about 30 % of the entire Bay), our region continues to play a key role in the health of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. During the mid-1980s, the region’s wastewater treatment plants implemented advanced phosphorus controls. The states also implemented bans on phosphorus in detergents.
As a result, water quality in the middle portion of the Potomac, as well as in several local waterways, rebounded. Underwater grasses that provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life have returned and now thrive; some of the best fishing for Largemouth bass is in waters downstream of the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant; and we have not had recurrences of the severe algal blooms that plagued the region in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The river also has seen a tremendous increase in recreational usage, as well as several waterfront developments that promote river access — all sources of pride for our region.
The most significant investments have been made at our region’s 19 major wastewater plants and, even in the face of tremendous population growth, they have achieved major reductions in their discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus – nutrients that are linked to water quality problems in the Bay. COG estimates that since the late 1980s, phosphorus levels have dropped by 77%, while nitrogen levels have dropped by 60%. And in response to stricter regulatory requirements for the Bay, the region’s wastewater plants are implementing a third round of nitrogen reduction projects to the limit of current technology. Those projects are scheduled to be operational well before the 2025 Bay implementation deadline.
The area’s local governments also are responding to strict regulatory requirements, and have adopted many innovative practices to curb the pollution that stems from the runoff of urban stormwater, which will protect local streams as well as the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Managing these stormwater flows presents a challenge that our local governments are now addressing.
We will continue to need significant funding to move all of this work forward. COG estimates local governments and utilities in the Washington region may need to invest $10 billion to implement wastewater and stormwater related controls, including those for combined sewer overflows. These estimates don’t include the costs associated with upgrading our region’s aging sewers, storm drains and related infrastructure. While the wastewater treatment improvements are underway, major capital expenses for stormwater technology are just beginning. Stormwater management to restore local streams and the Bay, due to the need to retrofit already developed areas and address combined sewer overflows, will require $6 billion or more.
Despite our progress and the good news about Potomac water quality in this region, challenges remain. These include an expected population increase of more than 2 million people over the next 30 years and need for sound land use planning to accommodate their housing, business, transportation, and recreational needs. COG’s Region Forward vision, adopted unanimously by COG’s members, includes a series of sustainability targets and goals to help ensure that we leave our grandchildren a legacy of clean water and a Potomac River that continues to be seen as an environmental success story for our region and the nation.