Potomac River health and safety guidelines are inconsistent across local jurisdictions, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. The District of Columbia bans swimming in the Potomac, Montgomery County says it’s generally safe, and Prince George’s County advises people to stay out, stopping short of a ban. Environmental groups suggest that all of that advice could be prudent, depending on weather conditions.
Though littered with debris, a more pressing safety concern is the level of fecal bacteria in the Potomac; levels rise and fall above or below the federally-sanctioned threshold before and after rainstorms. Last year, 32.5% of bacteria tests produced dangerous results. Dangerous levels of bacteria tend to appear during and after rainstorms, when rainwater runoff carries raw sewage directly into the river. Eventually, bacteria levels subside.
For now, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin offers the following safety advice for people spending time in or around the river:
- “Swift water currents can prove deadly for swimmers, even in areas that might appear calm on the surface. The National Park Service warns swimmers to stay out of the water completely around Great Falls and the Mather Gorge.
- Swimming in the Potomac is illegal in District waters.
- If you fall in the Potomac or choose to swim, do not swallow water.
- Don’t enter the water if you have cuts or open sores. These are pathways for bacteria to enter your body.
- If you swim in the Potomac, wash thoroughly afterward.
- Don’t get in the water for several days after a significant rainstorm. Storm flows increase bacteria levels.
- People with immunosuppressive diseases should avoid the river.”
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