Hurricane Irene’s outer bands blew through the DC area several weeks ago as the jumbo storm buzzed the East Coast. Irene dropped about four inches of rain on the city, and produced wind gusts over 50 mph. The novelty of a tropical cyclone at our doorstep had DC residents, recently spooked by an earthquake, preparing for a post-apocalyptic situation. As it turned out, this exciting weather event passed fairly quickly and wreaked minimal havoc, but it created a perfect opportunity for two intrepid urban adventurers to explore one of DC’s historic, and, yes, beautiful waterways, Rock Creek.
As I was taking stock of the downed branches, tossed-about catalpa tree leaves and disheveled sunflowers in my Brookland Neighborhood yard, I got a call from my friend and NOAA colleague, Ben Laws. I don’t recall Ben’s exact words, so allow me to poetically recreate them: “It’s time… Big Muddy is bustin’ loose”. Ben had been contemplating a float trip down Rock Creek for so long that the idea had begun to possess his thoughts, and now that mild mannered Rock Creek had transformed into its engorged alter ego, “Big Muddy”, Ben was feverish about getting on the water. Never one to stand in the way of a man and his dreams, I signed up for the mission, but not without some trepidation about what lay ahead.
Rock Creek, like many abused urban waterways, has a dirty reputation. Officially, Rock Creek is impaired, as designated by the EPA. This status means that its waters are neither fishable nor swimmable, but most DC residents probably consider it unfit to cool their toes in. The reputation is not undeserved. Twenty eight combined sewer overflow (CSO) outfalls expectorate a bacteria-laden mixture of untreated waste water and urban runoff into the creek about 30 times a year when precipitation rates exceed the capacity of the combined sewer system. In an average year, these events result in 52 million gallons of overflow to Rock Creek.
Another, more visible pollutant is floating trash, on its way to becoming marine debris as it is transported from Rock Creek, down the tidal Potomac, to the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. The concept of oceanic “garbage patches” has entered in to the popular consciousness in recent years. Concentrations of derelict fishing gear, plastic trash, and other buoyant debris occur within major oceanic gyres, a fact that has generated justified concern, but media sensationalism has led to misconceptions that there are vast floating islands of garbage out there. We passed numerous trash laden debris dams along Rock Creek, and, though they are not the size of anything more impressively large than one of the National Zoo’s prized pandas, these are the real garbage islands on their way to adding to the already truly large marine debris problem.
Rock Creek may be impaired, but “Big Muddy” doesn’t let that keep her down. Maybe we didn’t look the part, but Ben and I felt like rock stars as we smartly navigated class II and III rapids in a fishing canoe that handled like a barge. We can confirm that Rock Creek is floatable from the Maryland line to the Potomac. My position at the front of the boat earned me the honorary title of Effluent Interception Specialist, meaning that I absorbed the brunt of the splashes as we tore through massive chocolate standing waves. Fortunately, the aged CSO outfalls, looking like something out of a bygone era, one that involved vampires, did not appear to be actively disgorging as we passed. Adrift in swirling waters, we delighted in the dramatic architecture and subtle craftsmanship of the early-20th Century bridges that span Rock Creek’s lower reaches. The oldest and arguably most magnificent of these bridges, Taft Memorial, which conveys Connecticut Avenue, was begun in 1897 and is roughly contemporary with DC’s combined sewer system. These things were new, back in the day, when Teddy Roosevelt is reported to have cooled more than just his toes while skinny dipping in Rock Creek. Fortunately, the bridge bears its load more effectively than the sewer system does.
Herons, ducks, white-tailed deer, and a muskrat joined us as we bobbed along on our journey, a reminder that urban wildlife is still wild and degraded habitat still provides. Call it habitat with untapped potential. Thankfully, progress is being made towards realizing that potential. The DC Water and Sewer Authority is in the process of modernizing 6 of the CSOs that affect Rock Creek, part of the Clean Rivers Project, which aims to reduce CSOs throughout the District by 96%. The National Park Service installed a fish ladder at Pierce Mill Dam and has removed eight other barriers to passage, restoring aquatic habitat that has been fragmented for more than a century. Local organizations like Rock Creek Conservancy and Alice Ferguson Foundation are working in partnership with DC government and federal agencies, including NOAA, to clean up Rock Creek, the Anacostia, and the Potomac.
I encourage our readers to get on, in, or about an urban water body (mindful of local laws and advisories of course), because if you don’t, it means the pollution has won. Cities often harbor more of nature than we realize, with watery recreation and urban eco-renewal opportunities awaiting discovery. So get outside and volunteer for a local river, stream, or shoreline cleanup in your neighborhood!