State of the Nation's River report by the Potomac Conservancy

CUMBERLAND — The health of the Potomac River is worsening and threatening the Washington, D.C. area’s drinking water, according to a recent report from the Potomac Conservancy.

The report states that the pollution from urban runoff has become the Potomac region’s fastest-growing water quality problem and threatens the health of drinking water for 86 percent of the region’s residents.

Robert Gardner, director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, said the report “clearly shows that the health and sustainability of the Potomac is being threatened by rapid development of its watershed.”

He adds there is a need for new strategies in order to reduce runoff and the massive amounts of pollutants that runoff carries into the Potomac.

“Land changing in any way — for example, clearing, harvesting of forests, new development — sediment gets moved into the river,” Gardner said. “In general, this is a good indicator of other things that are coming into the river as well. The amount is almost perfectly correlated with other pollutants that come with changing land use.”

Gardner said the lab is involved with a number of research projects that helped contribute to some of the background for the Potomac Conservancy’s report. Some of the projects include land use change, the effect of urban development on water quality and quantity, and water runoff.

Though not directly associated with the preparation of this report, Gardner expects to be more involved in the future after his recent appointment to the Potomac Conservancy Board.

“One of the great things about this organization is that they make a particular effort to talk with the public in a very clear and professional manner,” he said. “Our research is usually published in journals and discussed at professional meetings, it doesn’t always get noticed by the public.”

Having lived in the Maryland area for only 14 years, Gardner said he found Maryland to be an unusual state because it houses both the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay as well as the public awareness. However, Gardner realizes the importance of the public being aware of the environmental changes.

“We live in the natural watershed area so it’s important for us to do research on the changes in water quality, wildlife habitat and sediment lows,” he said.

Students from Frostburg State University and doctoral students from the University of Maryland are working on various projects ranging from studies on bats and birds to fish in the river systems. Others are studying hydrology, land use change and water runoff. Gardner said the studies all contribute to each other, tie together, to help gather a better understanding of the effects on aquatic systems.

“The main thing we’re doing now is a large project where we are trying to assemble the river data and land use data for the entire Potomac watershed,” he said. “We’re trying to come up with predictive models that can anticipate future changes in development and use change and its impact on river systems.”

For more information, visit A complete copy of the report can be viewed at

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