Pollution still threatens the Potomac River, according to a Nov. 15 report from the Potomac Conservancy.
Increased development poses a serious threat to the Potomac River and could reverse gains in water quality that were made over the last 40 years, said Hedrick Belin, president of the Potomac Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization. He said the Potomac River will face increasing pressure from population growth during the next 20 years, due to the streets, sidewalks and houses that are associated with new development.
Rainwater that is not absorbed into the ground picks up the byproducts of human activity — oil from cars, lawn fertilizer, pet waste and other chemicals — which eventually end up in the Potomac.
Thanks to the federal Clean Water Act, Belin said people have done a great job of reducing pollution from agriculture and facilities like wastewater treatment plants, but pollutants from different sources has increased.
“I think at the end of the day, the goals should be to keep these contaminants from mixing with water in the first place because it is our drinking water,” Belin said.
As a highly-developed county along the Potomac River, Montgomery takes its responsibility to protect the Potomac very seriously, said Steven Shofar, division chief for the watershed management division of the County Department of Environmental Protection. He said the county has programs and regulations in place to restore waterways and increase water retention and treatment on site.
With approximately one-third of the county protected by an agricultural reserve that limits development, population growth will primarily come from redevelopment, which could be a net gain for water quality, he said. When older properties are redeveloped, they must be brought into compliance with today’s more stringent rules for stormwater runoff.
The Potomac is a popular recreation site, but too many stretches are still too polluted to allow swimming or fishing, according to the report.
Levels of perchlorate, a chemical used to produce rocket fuel and explosives, can exceed Maryland’s advisory level for safe drinking water during the summer and fall, and no regional water treatment plants can remove the chemical, according to the report.
Road salt is stressing aquatic life in long stretches of the Potomac, including streams in Montgomery County, according to the report.
Belin said individuals can make a difference by properly disposing of medication, not using fertilizer on lawns, and picking up after pets before it rains.
To improve water quality, the report suggests protecting green space, particularly along waterways, increasing funding for clean water programs, and providing incentives and technical assistance to encourage property owners to reduce impervious surfaces.
The report recommends that Montgomery County Council enact bills to protect and enhance tree canopy, and praised the county’s RainScapes program as a model for teaching property owners how to reduce impervious surfaces. Through the RainScapes program, County staff offer technical assistance and rebates to encourage property owners to implement projects that reduce runoff, such as planting trees, installing permeable pavers, or storing rainwater in rain barrels.