George Washington could have built his home anywhere on the east coast. He chose the Potomac River, identifying it forever as the “River of the Nation”.
But even more important than Washington’s riverside farm in Mt. Vernon and the Federal City are named just upriver, the first vocation of the Potomac is its service as the southern head of the Chesapeake Bay. The cultural and historical blood of our nation’s capital continues to be a living and pulsating force that provides sustenance and vitality to the most important estuary of the east.
Only the Susquehanna River that flows into the northernmost point of Chesapeake in Havre de Grace, MD, qualifies as a larger tributary than the Potomac. Originally from the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia and the hills of Virginia and Maryland, which are collectively recognized as the Potomac River Highlands, the river offers a diversity of culture, history and wildlife as it channels the border between those states. and Washington. , DC, on its 380-mile journey to Tidewater at Point Lookout, MD.
Along the way, it collects water from key tributaries, including the Anacostia, Shenandoah and Monocacy rivers, and connects people with nature. Its watershed of 14,670 square miles is almost 60 percent forest, which qualifies it as one of the most forested in the country. It provides critical habitat for wildlife and multiple fish species, while offering the nation’s capital a place to play.
Fishing, rowing, hiking, boating, wildlife watching and sightseeing along the river are just some of the popular pastimes for the millions who visit the vast river basin. More than four million people annually visit the historic Chesapeake National Historical Park & Ohio Canal, with the thunderous Great Falls of the Potomac Gorge as one of the park’s biggest attractions. From fly-fishing tents and white-water kayakers to commercial fishermen, marinas and restaurants, everyone benefits from access to clean river water.
President Bill Clinton designated the Potomac as a US-owned river in 1998, which, for five years, allowed communities along the rivers to access federal resources to help revitalize their rivers, river banks and local economies .
The river that flows beyond our nation’s capital is up and running.
President Lyndon B. Johnson had a different perspective in 1965, when he called the Potomac “a national disgrace” because of the polluted water that filled the canal. Wetlands and streams had been razed, stuffed and destroyed. The river that provides 90 percent of the drinking water to the metropolitan area of Washington, DC was invaded by algae and trash.
The headwaters of the river may have suffered even more. Originating from the heart of the coal country of the United States, the fragile currents that headed east to the Atlantic fell victim to the impacts of mining development and deforestation on their way to the mid-Atlantic farmlands, where they were loaded of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment Urban runoff from streets and parking lots, and other pollutants in the water, such as pharmaceuticals, further contributed to the deterioration of the river as it moved towards the bay.
Native fish, including bass, muskellunge, pike, walleye, tarpon and white perch, all suffered as a result. Meanwhile, the invasive snakehead of the north broke through into the river basin along with predatory blue catfish, endangering native species.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 began the resurgence of the Potomac and rivers throughout the country. Thanks to the safeguards of the Clean Water Act, the Potomac is significantly healthier than before and has become a magnet for recreation and an asset for nearby residents. After decades of decline, the Potomac River is on its way to recovery.
The Potomac Conservancy has given the river ever higher ratings since 2011, saying it is the only major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay that achieves short and long term nutrient reductions in its headwaters. The three major pollutants in the Potomac – nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment – are in decline, and shad, white perch and other common game fish are returning. Protections for more than 25 percent of the land in the region are providing tributaries with clean, healthy water and more people than ever are experiencing the river through fishing, water access trails and state parks.
The downside is that contaminated urban runoff remains the only growing source of pollution in the Potomac and Ches Bay.