Would You Swim in DC's Rivers? Plans Underway to Lift Ban

“After three years now, we’ve just found there are actually plenty of swimmable days in the Potomac River"

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An environmental group is pressuring D.C.’s mayor to lift the ban on swimming in the District’s rivers.

The Potomac Riverkeeper says the rivers are clean enough in places for people to swim.

And in a new statement, the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) said officials are working on a plan to lift the ban. 

“DOEE is taking steps to update our regulations and water quality standards,” the department said. “[…] This, combined with developing new monitoring and analytical tools, will allow the District to alert the public when the waters are unsafe for contact recreation.” 

The department could not give a timeline on when the swimming ban could be lifted. 

Two rivers run through D.C.: the Anacostia and the Potomac. It is against the law to swim in either river unless you have a permit for a special event such as a triathlon. 

The reason for the ban is pollution; health officials say the water isn’t healthy enough. Both rivers still experience sewer overflow events, when raw sewage flows in during heavy rainstorms. But the rivers have been getting much healthier over recent years. 


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“This is the only city in America that we’re aware of that has actually banned swimming due to their sewage pollution,” Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said. 

Naujoks is part of the effort to convince Mayor Muriel Bowser to lift the swimming ban. He said the District hasn’t been doing enough testing of the river, so three years ago his group started their own testing.

“After three years now, we’ve just found there are actually plenty of swimmable days in the Potomac River,” he said. 

Below D.C., in Virginia, it’s legal to swim in the river in places. 

Above D.C, from Great Falls down to the D.C. line, the National Park Service prohibits swimming, not because of pollution but because of dangerous currents. 

The Potomac Riverkeeper posts test results every week during the warmer months, and there’s an app swim guide that shows water quality conditions. Go here for more info

While the Riverkeeper says there are places that are safe to swim at times, it’s always best to avoid the rivers for about three days after any rainstorms. While Rock Creek can be tempting to swim in on a hot day, it has consistently failed water quality tests and is never safe for swimming, the group said. 

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