Is The Potomac The Most Endangered River In The Nation?

The real message of American Rivers’ recent pronouncement is don’t believe everything you read


Six months ago, the gave our river a D grade. Now, American Rivers, a nation-wide river protection organization, has ranked the Potomac the

Not merely “endangered,” or “one of the most endangered,” but the “most endangered.”

This puts the Potomac in the same league as worst automobiles (Jeep Wrangler, according to Consumer Reports). Or worst pizza (Uno Chicago Grill Deep Dish, says Yahoo Health). Or the worst NFL team (the 1976 Buccaneers, according to ESPN).

Is the Potomac really the most endangered river in the country? I thought about it for a few minutes, and came up with a very different result. This was not surprising, since neither I nor American Rivers based our conclusions on any actual evidence. They went with their gut―it appears―and I went with mine.

What is American Rivers actually trying to say?

I listened carefully to an interview with the organization’s President Bob Irwin.

Irwin conceded that the Potomac has improved a lot since Lyndon Baines Johnson called it “a national disgrace.” Much of the credit for the massive clean-up over the ensuing three decades goes to the Johnson Administration for its success in getting Congress to pass the 1972 Clean Water Act. 

However, he said, we still have a “lot more work to do” to bring the river back to a truly healthy state. No news here (and no headlines either). But does this make the Potomac the nation’s most endangered river?

Irwin also said that the Potomac is “emblematic” of dangers facing the nation’s rivers if powerful interests in Congress succeed in weakening the Clean Water Act. These House members want to get the federal government, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers, out of the business of enforcing water quality in the critically important small streams and wetlands. They want this responsibility should revert to the states.

So American Rivers is issuing a wake-up call, and beating up on the Potomac to make it newsworthy.

This does our river a disservice. When people hear the Potomac called the nation’s most endangered, they conjure up images of rotting algae, fish floating belly up, pipes spewing chemicals. It doesn’t help that a photo of just such a pipe appears on the American Rivers website along with their Potomac River ranking.  

This all leads to two erroneous and unfortunate conclusions. 

The first is that despite the Clean Water Act, the hard work, and the billions spent, the river is still a mess. The money was wasted; the hopes were an illusion. Why keep trying?

The second is to confirm the stereotype that uninformed people have of the river: filthy and not fit to visit.

Bass and Bald Eagles

I wish could have taken these people (and Bob Irwin) with me on a recent paddle downstream from Violette’s Lock. The water was clear, even after a couple of days of rain. On the bottom I could clearly see the stones and shells shimmering in the sunlight. Rich beds of plants undulated in the current.

I caught some chunky bass while being scrutinized by two bald eagles perched in a large dead tree. I got out of my boat and lifted up a flat rock. Its underside teamed with insect larvae, many of them of kinds that are sensitive to pollution.

Yes, the river does have a long way yet to go, and threats to the quality of its water will only increase as new developments and shopping centers continue to spread. American Rivers is dead right to insist that we pressure our elected representatives to resist any moves to weaken the Clean Water Act.

But no, the Potomac is not the most endangered in the country. Calling it so helps to undermine the credibility of conservation organizations, which can only carry out their critical mission of protecting our environment if they have the public’s trust.

Stacey Detwiler May 23, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Every year, American Rivers lists 10 rivers that are reaching a critical decision point in the coming year. This year’s top spot went to the Potomac, not because it is the ‘most polluted’ river in the country, but because it is threatened by less visible forms of pollution from nutrients and runoff that will only get worse if Congress moves forward to roll back protections under the Clean Water Act. The designation of the Potomac and other rivers on our list is based on objective and subjective criteria including chemical, physical, biological and even political threats. We fully recognize the huge improvements that have been made in the Potomac thanks to the Clean Water Act, and are working to engage people through the listing to prevent any backsliding so that people can paddle, fish, and swim safely in the Potomac and rivers across the country!
Roger Hamilton May 23, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Stacey, what you write is undoubtedly true. But does this make the Potomac the most endangered river in the country? Or even the second most endangered?
Katie Griffith May 24, 2012 at 03:36 PM
Being a West Virginia native and pretty familiar with the sludge commonly found in WV rivers, I have to say that I was pretty skeptical that the Potomac counted as 'most endangered.' Either way, I'm all for river cleanup anywhere. I'm hoping the pronouncement continues to encourage river cleanup, and with any luck it won't discourage visitors from enjoying the Potomac's waters.
PatchHead May 29, 2012 at 01:48 AM
"Much of the credit for the massive clean-up over the ensuing three decades goes to the Johnson Administration for its success in getting Congress to pass the 1972 Clean Water Act." LBJ's term ended in 1969.
Michael Cronin July 04, 2012 at 08:10 PM
Lyndon Johnson left office in January 1969 after declining to run in 1968. He probably supported the 1972 Clean Water Act, but it was his successor, Richard Nixon who got it through Congress while he was President.


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