He'd wait a lifetime for a drink from the Potomac

May 06, 1999|By Dennis Shaw

One of the things I want to do before I die is drink a glass of water straight out of the Potomac River.

[cont. from lifestyle]

I could do that right now, of course, but I'm afraid that might result in my dying sooner, which is not quite what I have in mind.

Certainly that's an exaggeration. I might pick up some unpleasant bacteria from untreated Potomac River water, but it's highly unlikely to kill me. Still, it's not a good idea.

Actually, the water is a lot safer than it was when I moved to Washington County in 1973. But there was a major cleanup effort around that time, and the river was considered to be in good shape.


I could really feel good about it as I walked along the C&O Canal towpath, marveling at how natural and undeveloped the river seemed, thanks to its status as a national historical park.

I should just stop reading the newspapers. Then I could still feel good about it. But oh, no, not me! Show me a headline that says the Potomac is one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the nation, and I have to read it.

I'm not convinced the situation is that bad, mind you. But there's no way I'd drink that glass of water.

There are lots of new problems springing up, many of which I have a hand in, such as urban sprawl, development and highway construction.

The biggest threat these days, however, seems to be agricultural runoff. By that I do not refer to the farmers of Washington County, the vast majority of whom are responsible stewards of the land. The amount of fertilizer and pesticides they use each year is dwarfed by that applied by lawn-obsessed homeowners.

The big concern is the enormous amount of wastes produced by industrialized poultry farms and cattle feedlots in the headwaters of the Potomac, mostly in West Virginia.

So I decided to try and do something about that.

I gave up eating beef and chicken, but I don't think that has had much effect yet. I also wrote a letter of protest to officials in Bedford County, Pa., who allow manure lagoons at "concentrated animal operations" to be just 100 feet from Sideling Hill Creek, which flows into the Potomac. But the answer I got from them was pretty much, "Pffffbt!"

Closer to home, I'm very careful that nothing harmful gets into the stream on my property, which flows into Tom's Run, which meets up with the Little Conococheague Creek before joining the Potomac near Dam No. 5. But I'm not sure what else I can do.

Fortunately, governments on several levels seem to be taking note. On the federal level, the Potomac last year was declared one of 14 American Heritage Rivers, which is intended to help protect and restore it.

But the Maryland General Assembly failed to finalize a Potomac River Protection Bill despite overwhelming lawmaker support.

I'm considering filling a 50-gallon tank with untreated Potomac River water and taking it down to Annapolis next year to offer a glass of it to any government official I can find. I suspect they'd all turn it down. But then, so would I. I guess I'll have to wait a few decades to get my wish.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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