What’s Happening on the Potomac this Summer?
Caution is advised for swimming, eating fish.
As Northern Virginians swelter through another hot, steamy summer,
the Potomac River looks inviting. But it really may not be very welcoming.
Although the water temperatures range from the mid- to high-80s, the river is risky for swimming, caution officials at the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) because of bacteria levels in some places. Commission staffers say they cannot provide a definitive answer when asked if the river is safe for swimming and wading. At certain sites, ICPRB scientists conduct weekly tests for bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness and other infections in people; they monitor some sites monthly. Their guidance is posted here.
Summer is a popular time for fishing on the river and its banks. “Fishing the upper tidal Potomac and its major tributaries remains very productive for largemouth bass, striped bass, catfish, snakeheads and panfish,” according to ICPRB’s website. Anglers are snagging largemouth bass near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge pilings.
The tidal part of the Potomac “holds big fish,” like blue catfish exceeding 40 pounds and snakeheads more than 30 inches.
Should people eat fish caught in the Potomac? Each state has fish consumption advisories, says ICPRB’s Curtis Dalpra, and the states’ criteria vary. Since Maryland has jurisdiction over most of the river, Maryland’s is the most inclusive, he contends. You can find advisories here:
Mount Vernon resident and captain Steve Chaconas with the National Bass Guide Service, opined, “I haven't eaten fish out of the Potomac River since the early 60s. Heavy metals and PCBs make excessive consumption risky, ironically, although no official data is available. Snakeheads are both tasty, from what I hear, and they grow very fast, which theoretically lowers the amount of time for these toxins to accumulate in larger doses. Bottom feeders and older fish carry a definite risk.”
Drought Could Trigger Reservoir Releases
The Potomac provides around 90 percent of the metropolitan Washington region’s drinking water to five million people. Supplies are not threatened for now.
ICPRB’s latest water supply outlook reports that “much of the Potomac basin is covered with abnormally dry (dissolved oxygen) conditions,” based on the July 3 U.S. Drought Monitor and that “drought conditions could become a real concern this season.”
The Commission predicts an “above-normal probability of water releases from the area’s backup water supply reservoirs.”
For now, ICPRB contends, “There is sufficient flow in the Potomac River to meet Washington metropolitan area’s water demands without augmentation from upstream reservoirs.”
New Book on River’s History, Sites
A new book by Garrett Peck titled "The Potomac River, A History and Guide," is a journey through the river’s natural and human history, from its origin as a trickle at the foot of West Virginia’s Backbone Mountain, 3,140 feet above sea level, to its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay.
The story of the river, Peck argues, is the story of our country, because the Potomac has featured prominently in many significant historical events since pre-Colonial times. The book is also a tour guide for many spots associated with the river’s culture, recreation and history.
Here are a few facts from the book. The Potomac:
- Is 383 miles long and flows “through some of the
oldest land in the world”;
- Is “spared from channelization that permanently
scarred so many of our nation’s rivers”;
- In the Alexandria-Mount Vernon area, is an
estuary, meaning it is tidal;
- Has five remaining lighthouses, including Jones
Point on the southern end of Alexandria; and is near Belle Haven, which started as a tobacco warehouse in the 1730s.
Potomac Riverkeepers is sponsoring a book discussion with the author from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m Aug. 9 at 1100 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.; 11th floor. To learn more and RSVP, visit http://potomacriverkeeper.org/GarrettPeck.
The book was published by the History Press and costs $19.99.