A new report says the Potomac is the most endangered river in the United States, and that its condition may get even worse in the coming years. The advocacy group American Rivers says the Potomac is suffering from pollution related to development and and agriculture. But other environmentalists have criticized the idea of saying that some rivers are at greater risk than others.


  • William Robert Irvin President, American Rivers


  • 13:06:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how not to write about Africa, behind the brewing frustrations that many have about how news is covered in African countries by Western journalists. But first, is the Potomac America's most endangered river?

  • 13:07:13

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIA report released today by the nonprofit America's Rivers says it is and that it got that way because of runaway urban and agricultural pollution, storm water runoff, side effects from chemical fertilizers, overflowing sewage. But even some environmental activists who agree that the river is at risk are skeptical that there's a scientific method to determine whether one river is more at risk than others.

  • 13:07:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the methodology behind the report and what steps he believes are necessary for a cleaner Potomac is William Robert Irvin. Bob Irvin is president of American Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to protect and restore rivers and streams in the United States. Bob Irvin, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:00

    MR. WILLIAM ROBERT IRVINThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:08:02

    NNAMDIThe Potomac cuts right through the heart of our region and the nation's capitol and you say this artery is the most endangered river in the entire country. Why is it that the Potomac, in your view, is in such particularly bad shape and what statement are you trying to make by saying that it is the most at-risk river in America?

  • 13:08:23

    IRVINWell, this year marks the 27th annual report that American Rivers has issued listing our most endangered rivers. And each year what we do is identify rivers that are of national significance that have a very serious threat to them. And most importantly that something can be done in the coming year to alleviate that threat. And so in looking at the rivers across the country this year we noted that this was the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. And the Clean Water Act has done an amazing job cleaning up rivers all over this country, including the Potomac River. But there's still much work to be done.

  • 13:09:05

    IRVINAnd the Clean Water Act itself is now under attack in congress with multiple bills designed to weaken the authority of the federal government to clean up our rivers and streams. And so in looking at all of the nation's rivers we realized that the nation's river, the Potomac River which flows right through our nation's capitol is itself at risk as a result of these threats to the Clean Water Act. And so we designated the Potomac River as the number one most endangered river.

  • 13:09:36

    NNAMDII'm going to get back to the political aspects of that and the Clean Water Act in a little while. But first, your group says the Potomac is emblematic of what's at stake in other rivers nationwide. What problems is it emblematic of?

  • 13:09:51

    IRVINWell, the Potomac River, like many rivers, flows through a number of different states and it has a number of threats to it, from agricultural runoff in its headwaters to urban water runoff as it comes through the District of Columbia and through our cities. And we see rivers all over the country that have situations like this. And what is happening is that despite all of those threats, there are measures in Congress that are designed to limit the authority of the federal government, for example, to protect headwater streams and wetlands. And if you don't protect those areas, you can't protect rivers.

  • 13:10:31

    IRVINOr to restrict the government's ability to regulate pesticide use around our rivers and streams and indeed to just give that authority back to the states. Well, the reason we have a Clean Water Act in the first place is because we realized 40 years ago that leaving it to the states was not sufficient, that we had polluted rivers all over this country. Indeed, in Ohio, they had the Cuyahoga River literally catching on fire. And the Potomac itself was deemed a national disgrace by President Johnson in 1965.

  • 13:11:01

    IRVINSo we enacted the Clean Water Act to provide strong federal protection. It's been very successful. There's still a lot of work to be done and yet we have people in Congress who think that we ought to turn the clock back to those days of polluted waters.

  • 13:11:16

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with William Robert Irvin, president of American Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to protect and restore rivers and streams in the United States. That's the group that says that the Potomac River is America's most endangered river.

  • 13:11:31

    NNAMDIAnd since you've mentioned the Clean Water Act and the implication of politics there, I read in today's Washington Post that some have questioned whether there is indeed a scientific basis for saying that one river is more endangered than the next. They would infer, from what you have said, that there is a political basis, the Potomac running through Washington where of course the congress is. How would you respond to that criticism that there is no such scientific basis?

  • 13:11:57

    IRVINWell, studies by the University of Maryland, by other conservation groups such as the Potomac Conservancy and the Potomac River Keeper have all noted that we have serious problems scientifically based in the Potomac River. I mean, for example, as a result of toxic pollutants in the river many of the male fish found in the river actually have eggs. Now that clearly is not the way nature intended it. So there is absolutely no dispute that there are still problems in terms of pollution for the Potomac River.

  • 13:12:32

    IRVINBut we live in a political world and what happens on Capitol Hill is going to affect our ability to clean up the Potomac River. And so we have to look at both aspects. We can't just say that we're just going to apply pure scientific criteria to identify whether a river is endangered or not.

  • 13:12:50

    NNAMDISo in that case, Bob Irvin, what would be your political goals here as you've been calling a lot of attention to the future of the Clean Water Act? What are the pieces of the Clean Water Act that members of congress are trying to strike, and how are they relevant to the issues at play with the Potomac?

  • 13:13:08

    NNAMDII think we seem to have lost Bob Irvin on the phone. But I do know that the cuts that he is talking about to the Clean Water Act have been taking place mostly in the House and that they have not been successful in the Senate. And so one of the issues to raise with him is how is that likely to change this time? Bob Irvin, are you there?

  • 13:13:29

    IRVINI'm here. Can you hear me?

  • 13:13:30

    NNAMDIYes. Please go ahead and talk about the specific pieces of the Clean Water Act that members of Congress are trying to strike and whether or not you believe that they will be successful.

  • 13:13:38

    IRVINSure. One of the major attacks on the Clean Water Act is to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corp of Engineers from protecting small headwater streams and wetlands. And the way this is being done is to say that those are not waters of the United States that are deemed worthy of federal protection. But we know that if we don't protect the headwaters of streams we can't protect the downstream portions either.

  • 13:14:04

    IRVINSo unless we protect those areas that are found in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Virginia and Maryland, we won't be able to protect the river that flows through the District of Columbia and through Virginia either. Another attack on the Clean Water Act is to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from exercising its authority to protect rivers and streams from the devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining.

  • 13:14:31

    IRVINWe have seen rivers and streams in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia devastated by this practice where the tops of mountains are literally sheared off and the waste is dumped into stream beds. It's a disaster for rivers and streams. It's a disaster for the communities that depend on them. And so despite all of that, there are those in Congress who favor the coal industry who want to prohibit the federal government from protecting our rivers and streams. And indeed, that's why we named the Coal River in West Virginia as another one of our nation's most endangered rivers.

  • 13:15:11

    NNAMDII mentioned that the Senate has blocked a lot of these attempts in the past. Do you think that pattern is likely to continue or are you concerned?

  • 13:15:19

    IRVINWell, we hope that the Senate will continue to block these, but unfortunately, some of the threats are actually in Senate bills as well as House bills. And we simply can't count on that, particularly as Congress gets in an election season and is rushing to get out of town. A lot of bad things can happen. And we don't know what the outcome of the election will be. But what we do know is the American people value clean water. Polls show consistently that that is the environmental issue that people care the most about.

  • 13:15:49

    IRVINAnd so part of the reason we've issued today's report is to bring attention to this issue so that the American people who do value clean water will be aware of these threats and will let Congress know that they don't want to turn back the clock.

  • 13:16:01

    NNAMDII couldn't help noticing, Bob Irvin, that by some measures water quality in the Potomac is improving. What are some of the things that you have been, well, happy to see on that front?

  • 13:16:12

    IRVINWell, absolutely things have improved for the Potomac and rivers all over this country as a result of the Clean Water Act. We definitely are seeing cleaner rivers and streams but the work isn't done yet. And that's why it is so important for us to keep going, to keep working under the Clean Water Act to make sure that we continue to make progress and not to go back to the days of dirty water that we saw 40 years ago.

  • 13:16:40

    NNAMDITo what extent are you concerned about the recent boom in big development in and around the Potomac? During the past four years we've seen National Harbor go up in Prince Georges County. The new ballpark in D.C. is right on top of where the Anacostia feeds into the Potomac. People clearly want to build along the water. Is that a concern?

  • 13:17:00

    IRVINWell, we all love our rivers and streams and we want to be as close to them as we can. And so it is a concern when we have development around our rivers and streams. And suburban sprawl in the Washington, D.C. area is a major concern for protecting the Potomac. But we are seeing some positive signs. I mean, even that ballpark you mentioned, Nationals Park is certified as one of the green ballparks in this country. There's a green roof there that you'll see if you're sitting in the stands.

  • 13:17:30

    IRVINAnd the mayor of Washington, D.C. recently declared over the course of the next 30 to 40 years he wants to make this a green city and to do things like have rain gardens and ways to reduce the runoff from our streets and our rooftops into the rivers.

  • 13:17:51

    NNAMDIBob Irvin, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:17:54

    IRVINThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:17:55

    NNAMDIWilliam Robert Irvin is president of American Rivers. It's a nonprofit advocacy group that works to protect and restore rivers and streams in the United States. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, how not to write about Africa. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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