When Can We Swim in the Anacostia River?

When Can We Swim in the Anacostia River?
September 27, 2023 by: Christopher E. Williams, President & CEO

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Ah, summertime! When life in the DC region slows down just a bit and thoughts turn to family cookouts, vacation escapes, what to do with the kids all day and, on the Anacostia River...swimming?

Yes, this summer our friends at the Anacostia Riverkeeper planned the first legal (through a special permit from the DC Department of Energy and Environment) swimming event in the Anacostia River in over 50 years. This caused quite stir, raising a lot of questions about water quality and the health and safety of swimming in the Anacostia River today and going forward.

Coincidentally, the swimming event was scheduled to occur not long before the release of AWS’s annual State of the River Report, which includes a report card measuring the river’s water quality improvements over time. As you’ll see in this issue, while long term trends still point to steadily improving water quality, the Anacostia River receives a failing grade again in 2023.

Okay to swim, but a failing water quality grade? What’s going on here? Let’s unpack this a bit.

First, AWS measures a host of water quality indicators when developing our report card, including water clarity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll a, the presence (or absence) of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), and fecal bacteria (E. coli). As we work through this seeming paradox, it’s those last two we need to keep a close eye on. For the last couple of years, SAV has failed to thrive in the river, driving the overall water quality grade down to discouraging “F”, even as other indicators hold steady or tick up. But when evaluating the safety of the river for swimming specifically, the overriding factor is E. coli, and the fact is that in some places along the river on some days of the year, E. coli levels meet the water quality standard for swimming. When one considers the sorry state of the river only a few years ago, this represents tremendous progress.

However, the scheduling of a single swimming event is not a signal that it is generally “okay to swim” in the Anacostia River. Not yet. Swimming is still prohibited without a special permit, and with reason. The levels of E. coli fluctuate based on several factors, one of the most important being weather. After a significant rainfall, E. coli in the Anacostia often spikes to unsafe levels. In fact, the July 8 swimming event was postponed until later this year for just this reason. For the foreseeable future, levels of fecal bacteria will need to be closely monitored to determine, on a day-to-day basis, when and where it is safe to swim in the Anacostia. For swimming to become a daily reality in the Anacostia, we’ll need not only a system in place to gather and make available this information in real time, but  an infrastructure of safe, equitably accessible swimming areas that doesn’t exist today.

Summertime hasn’t meant swimming in the Anacostia River for a long time, so long that many simply can’t imagine it. After decades of environmental degradation and malignant neglect, the Anacostia’s lingering reputation is understandable, even if no longer accurate. But things are changing. The river is rebounding. Water quality is steadily improving. The data shows it. The returning fish, wildlife and wetlands habitats show it. We have a lot of work left to do, but we’ll get there. And regarding those who reject out of hand the idea of ever swimming in waters of the Anacostia, I’ll paraphrase a favorite movie, “If you clean it, they will come.”

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