by William J. Sittig
Is it safe to swim or engage in other water recreational activities in Rock Creek and its tributaries?
First of all, it is important to know that swimming is currently illegal in DC waters and has been since the 1970s. But, to assist in answering the question of whether or not it is safe to engage in other water activities or make contact with the water, a team of volunteer scientists, including many of your neighbors, is engaged in monitoring some aspects of water quality in Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.
The three tributaries of Rock Creek in our area – Broad Branch Creek, Soapstone Creek and Melvin Hazen Run – are being monitored by local volunteers under the direction of the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and Anacostia Riverkeeper (ARK). Project partners include the Rock Creek Conservancy, the Audubon Naturalist Society, Potomac Riverkeeper, and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
Samples of the water in these streams are taken weekly to determine the level of bacteria, specifically E. coli, and its turbidity and pH level. Contamination from fecal bacteria released into the water after a heavy rain (including raw sewage and pet and wildlife waste) poses a significant risk to human health, as do other contaminants that are beyond our scope. The data collected through this effort may be used to assess the effectiveness of capital investments to reduce bacteria loading into select DC waterways.
Weekly sample results are reported within 48 hours to DOEE and to the public via upload to the Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative (CMC). They are also distributed on The SwimGuide and Water Reporter apps, as well as by ARK and its partners’ social media and websites.
Although this project could include sampling for a number of other contaminants, such as excess nutrients, it was determined that E. coli is a direct indicator of fecal contaminants in waters (i.e., sewage or animal waste). This is the primary concern in urban waterways where potential sewage overflows or contamination can occur in local waterways. E.coli is also relatively easy and inexpensive to sample and test for. Samples can be collected by volunteers and results obtained in twenty-four hours. Thus, this combination of importance, convenience and reliability allows DOEE and ARK to cover a large area of DC waters in a single day while still collecting data on the primary bacterial contaminant in waters. Although expanding the program will add cost and time, the project managers are looking to potentially expand sampling to include other contaminants.
Results from monitoring Rock Creek and its tributaries in the last several weeks have shown the E. coli bacteria level to be so high that any contact with the water is deemed highly risky. The high bacterial and turbidity levels are due to rain runoff from Connecticut Avenue and other adjacent streets and from uncollected pet waste. Residents of our area may have noticed the “Stay Dry, Stay Safe” signs near Rock Creek, alerting people to the dangers of swimming or wading and to the swim ban.
We, as responsible citizens of Forest Hills and surrounding areas, can do our part by ensuring that pet waste is properly disposed of and that we follow environmentally safe practices on our properties and at our businesses. Individual effort will make it possible to more fully and safely enjoy our beautiful rivers and streams.
For a more in-depth look at the level of the many different sources of contaminants in our streams and DC’s overall effort to improve the water quality of the Rock Creek Watershed you may consult the 2010 implementation plan of the Department of the Environment Watershed Protect Division. Also useful is the report “Recreational Waters,” produced by the EPA.
William J. Sittig, a resident of North Cleveland Park, began monitoring the water quality of the tributaries of Rock Creek in 2019, the first year ARK and DOEE used citizen volunteers to sample the waters. He learned of this program through his participation on ANC 3F’s Parks and Trails Committee.