Agility During the Pandemic

Two volunteers sample for PRKN's Community Science Water Quality Monitoring Program on the Potomac River.

The Covid pandemic taught us all a lot about ourselves -- our strengths and weaknesses, our resilience and determination.

For Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the same truth applied. But we are rather proud of how we got through the challenge; as a result, we also feel confident of our ability to move forward through the continuing crisis.

We found that our dedication and imagination enabled us to continue our vital work in protecting and defending the Potomac and Shenandoah watersheds. Pollution, and polluters, can be relentless, so we had to be as well. Our Water Quality Monitoring and Trash Free Potomac campaigns are great examples.

The foremost goal for us during the pandemic was, of course, to continue our work. Our Water Quality Monitoring, launched in 2019, is critical to our goal of making the Potomac swimmable again. To achieve that, regulators need to know, with certainty, locations of pollution; and the data identifying those spots must be verifiable and maintained according to strict scientific standards. Our collection and testing protocols have been developed so that our data is accepted by all state agencies which need and use the information.

Intrepid and well trained volunteers collect and test water samples from 18 sites in the Potomac; the results are posted within 48 hours, so that river users can determine where and when contact with the river is safe. During COVID-19 some state agencies prohibited their employees from conducting field work, and thus important data was not being collected and published. So we necessarily, in keeping with broader regulations, found a way safely to undertake our testing. In addition, we also pivoted from in person training, which provided the necessary skills to our volunteers, to virtual sessions. The result was that we had volunteers who were able to perform the tasks, in keeping with our protocols and standards. In fact, we had enough volunteers that we were able to expand the number of sites tested!

Trash Free Potomac is yet another initiative which shows our dedication to protecting and defending the river. Trash pollution is a growing problem in the Potomac watershed. Trash in the Potomac River and its tributaries comes from a variety of sources including littering and illegal dumping. Rain also washes litter directly into the water or into storm drains. Eventually, the trash flows into the Chesapeake Bay and ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean. It is important that we prevent pollution from entering our rivers because most trash that ends up in the ocean originates from rivers.

During the midst of the pandemic, Potomac Riverkeeper Network launched the campaign to inform everyone in the Washington area about trash and plastic pollution in the Potomac River, so that they can better appreciate the seriousness of the problem and what needs to be done to solve it. Single-use plastics are so prevalent in our lives that we may not realize how they affect the environment.

The major goal of this campaign is to engage the community to make the Potomac River trash-free. We host monthly river cleanups at the Alexandria waterfront and National Harbor -- and this component was not easy during the pandemic. We created protocols so that trash collection could be done in accordance with all restrictions to keep everyone involved safe. Additionally, we made it easy for people to be individually involved through Water Reporter, which enables users to submit photos of trash pollution in their communities and tag the location to alert others about trash hotspots.

The Potomac River is a precious resource to our region, supplying drinking water and opportunities to paddle, swim, and fish to six million people. We cannot ignore the devastating and long term impact of trash generated by single-use plastic. We’re proud to be among the first to take on this challenge and we’re eager to involve the members of our community.

We are the voice of the river -- that voice must be heard regardless of the stresses and challenges from other sources. Like the polluters with whom we battle, the pandemic was another struggle we faced with determination, agility, and purpose. We were not about to let anything stand in our way of protecting and defending the river we, and you, love so much.

Charity Name
Potomac Riverkeeper
Photo Caption
Two volunteers sample for PRKN's Community Science Water Quality Monitoring Program on the Potomac River.
Photo Credit
Cherry Wyman