Mount Vernon Column: Prompt Action Needed To Clean Potomac River

Mount Vernon Column: Prompt Action Needed To Clean Potomac River


This past week, the senior member of Virginia’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to remove the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to hold Virginia accountable for failing to clean up the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. People should be deeply disturbed. The Potomac provides drinking water to five million people.


The Potomac River was once a bountiful asset and source of employment. In 1604, Captain John Smith wrote of fish so plentiful he could spear them with his sword, oysters that “lay as thick as stones” and schools of fish so plentiful that his men attempted to catch them with frying pans.

One of Gen. George Washington’s most profitable operations was his fishery. In 1772, he caught over one million herring and 10,000 shad. In 1886, one report estimated that 750 million shad were taken from the Potomac River during the eight-week season. At the turn of the century, a Northern Virginia fisherman used a net with over five miles of total sweep operated by 100 men and eight horses. Pre-World War II census tables reveal hundreds of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford County citizens employed in fishing and aquaculture.


Between 1950 and 1970, the picture changed. Potomac fish populations and employment plummeted because of degraded water quality. Poor water quality in the Chesapeake Bay caused similar population crashes in other species such as oysters and menhaden. Today, there is only one family on Mason Neck still licensed as commercial fishermen in Fairfax County.

Each year, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality continues to list the Potomac estuaries as impaired for fish consumption and recreational uses due to PCB contamination and prevalence of e-coli bacteria and fecal coliform (largely from livestock and pet waste). Lake Montclair in Prince William County is impaired for mercury in fish tissue. Significant nitrogen loads frequently cause aquatic, life-killing algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay.

Some causes begin with livestock practices in the Shenandoah Valley; however, some also lie here in Northern Virginia — pollution flowing into the river from our stormwater runoff. Most pre-1985 neighborhoods have zero stormwater controls.

Northern Virginia’s streams continue to suffer. Almost 70 percent of Fairfax County's streams are in fair to poor condition. In my lifetime, I found crawfish, turtles, eels and fish in the small streams in the Mount Vernon area. Today, decades of abuse from massive stormwater flows have left many of our local streams as biologically dead, over-eroded, litter-filled ditches fed by uncontrolled sewers.


The solution will require more than litter enforcement and voluntary trash cleanups. Because of Virginia’s failure to take the major steps necessary to solve these problems, EPA is forcing action. U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s effort to emasculate EPA’s ability to hold Virginia accountable is a giant step backward.

Requiring farmers to keep their cows from defecating in Virginia streams should not be controversial. An upriver community should not be able to use their portion of the river in a way that destroys the river for those who live downstream.

Legacy sites such as Dominion Power's coal ash dumps at Possum Point in Prince William County should not be tolerated. Coal ash is clearly linked to water pollution, especially when coal ash holding ponds are near water. Dominion’s proposal to place only a dirt cap on the Possum Point pond is inadequate.

Northern Virginia also needs to act. The construction of high-quality transit on U.S. 1 should be prioritized. Not only will it bring carefully planned redevelopment, it can also modernize storm water infrastructure. Localities also must actually fund the plans they created a decade ago to restore our watersheds by building real storm water controls, those using low-impact approaches.

The EPA is the only agency which has the authority to force action across all state lines. Its authority must not be undermined so that Virginia is not the only state taking action.

We should work together to solve problems instead of fighting attempts at progress, weakening environmental protections or turning enforcement measures into partisan fights. Clean water is not a partisan issue. The Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River are shared assets that bind the Commonwealth of Virginia together and clean water is fundamental to our survival.

It is an honor to serve as your state delegate. Please email me at if you have any feedback.