City Desk

D.C. Man Will Brave Potomac Pollution to Promote Swimming

Jeff Brown (right) and a swim class.

The waters of the Potomac River have been known to contain sewer water and chemicals that scramble fish's sexes, but that isn't stopping Jeff Brown. Brown, a former Army lieutenant, plans to swim eight miles in the river in July to convince more black and Latino people to try swimming.

Brown's swim, set for July 20, will go through Washington, Maryland, and Virginia portions of the river. Brown also hopes to raise money for his mentoring organization, Wolf Pack Leadership.

Brown first became attracted to swimming when, as a boy growing up in Washington's Sursum Corda neighborhood, he realized he could escape the troubles of the street by heading to the pool. He says there's no reason that, despite stereotypes, black people shouldn't learn how to swim.

"If you ever lived in Kansas," Brown says, "you realize that white people can't swim, either, because they've just never been around a pool."

So, what dangers await Brown in the Potomac? Swimming in the river is outlawed in the District, but Collin Burell, the District Department of the Environment's associate director for the Water Quality Division, says Brown will be allowed to swim if he's able to provide water samples that show the river will be safe on the day he swims.

If it rains less than three days before Brown's swim, however, he may have to reschedule. Burell says rain makes it too likely that dangerous feces from nearby farms, carrying a host of potential illnesses, will be swept into the river."When you have overflows, you expose people to a lot of bacteria," Burell says.

Heavy stuff, but that's not stopping Brown, who has swam in triathlons in the river before. "The Potomac's not that bad actually," says Brown.

After the race, he'll be decontaminated with a lime shower.

Photo courtesy Jeff Brown

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Will

    DC adheres to a nanny-state philosophy with regard to swimming in its waters. Whereas most states are fine with simply testing the water, posting the results, and leaving it at "swim at your own risk", DC has a blanket ban with onerous conditions to be able to legally swim. Water quality testing will likely run Mr. Brown $300-$600.

    I consider DC's policy a gross abrogation of the Clean Water Act, which clearly states that "swimmable, fishable rivers" is the goal. Many places have far more compromised water than the Potomac, and yet people swim there regularly. From Malibu's surfrider beach (always an F in fecal coliform tests) to Denver's Cherry Creek, to Sandy Point in Maryland. Adults should be allowed to make their own decisions when it comes to their public waters.

    I wish Mr. Brown all the best, and if he's looking for company (and footing the water quality testing bill), I'd be happy to join him to promote his cause.