Dear PoPville – Is It Safe to Swim/Wade in Rock Creek?

Photo by PoPville flickr user ianseanlivingston

Dear PoPville,

I was running in Rock Creek Park on Sunday when I came across some young adults swimming/frolicking in the creek. I began to wonder just how dangerous this activity might be in terms of health? I have the perception that you should not enter Rock Creek under any circumstances but I don’t really know the truth.

This is especially concerning as I would like my young children to be able to explore Rock Creek Park as much as possible but not at the risk of their health. Can they pick up rocks, play in the sand, wade in the water?

Would love to hear from those who actually have the data and know the science, not just from those with perceptions…can you help me get to the bottom of this?

Not sure about the safety by the National Park Service says:

“All Rock Creek Park areas are closed to swimming, bathing and wading by people and pets.”

55 Comment

  • No dirtier than any other urban creek, but it drains most of NW and is a huge flash flood risk. If you want your kids washed into the Chesapeake, let them swim in Rock Creek during a rain storm…

  • pablo .raw

    I think I’ve seen a sign near the zoo saying something about sewage in the waters…

    • Parts of the creek smell like a sewer in the summer- there is undoubtedly raw sewage there. I wouldn’t go anywhere near it.

      • DC has CSOs – Combined Sewer Overflows. Blue Plains, our water treatment facility, is huge and state of the art. Unfortunately, our pipes are the opposite. Anytime it rains more than 0.2″, everything – stormwater runoff and raw sewage – dumps directly into Rock Creek and the Potomac and the Anacostia. it is ESPECIALLY unhealthy to swim soon after a storm, but always a bad idea. DC Water is getting ready to start construction on a huge pipe system – as big around as a metro station – so that the drainage system has the capacity to carry everything to Blue Plains.

  • It’s filthy. If you swim in it enough, you’re bound to catch something.

  • There are sewage outlets into the creek no? If you like high levels of bacteria, go for it. Didn’t a lady die once after her car flipped into the water and she got water inside her body that had a deadly amoeba that killed her?

    • Will the amoeba kill my kids before or after they’re swept into the Chesapeake by a toxic flash flood?

    • Somehow I didn’t see this when I was posting at 2:57 pm… that car-flipping incident must’ve been the same one that my work colleague was in (as one of the bystanders who rescued the woman).

  • Swimming in raw sewage–I love it!

  • Hobo pee is sterile. That’s right. You can drink it.

  • There’s a sewer overflow discharge location at Piney Branch Parkway and 17th St NW. After flowing down a side branch the sewage meets up with the main part of the creek. I’ve seen it pumping out a prodigious amount of water during the recent heavy rains, and the area always smells like sewage after a heavy rain storm. So, I definitely wouldn’t get in the creek downstream from there. Not sure about the presence of discharge locations further upstream.

    • I believe there are about 23 combined sewer overflow outfalls in Rock Creek. These are part of DC’s 100+-year-old sewer system, which combines both sanitary sewer (from our homes and businesses) and stormwater (street) flows. When it rains, they are designed to overflow to keep the excess wastewater from overwhelming the treatment system at Blue Plains. Thus, definitely don’t go near it after it rains, and mostly don’t go in it period.

      By the way, you’ve probably heard DC Water is working to remedy this situation (under court order, I think) by building four tunnels that will be used to store the wastewater until it can be sent to Blue Plains for treatment.

  • A friends 3 year old dog (Lab) got an infection that the vet traced to bacteria in the water here and had about $4,000 in bills to try and get her better. She’s still having issues. I would keep your dogs out of this water!

  • Obviously not a good idea. But why can’t sewage and runoff be routed AWAY from the creek. Can’t it be cleaned to a suitable standard to ALLOW recreation? How great would it be to be able to walk to the creek and sit in a tube and float around. Would be a major boost to quality of life in DC. Boulder Colorado has a stream through it and people tube and swim in it. People swim in the creeks around Austin Tx. Why can’t we clean up rock creek? I know we are a big east coast city but shouldn’t it be doable?

    • talula

      Older cities like DC have combined sewers, where storm run off and sewage is collected in the same pipes and carried to a water treatment plant. There are discharge points in the system that drain into surrounding water bodies in order to prevent an overflow at the treatment plants during times of heavy rains. As a result, in DC the combined storm water and sewage is discharged into Rock Creek during periods of heavy rain. If you walk through the park after a storm, you can definitely smell it. Wading through the creek probably wouldn’t kill you, but it might make you sick and I wouldn’t do it.

    • Allison

      Yep! Heading back to Austin in a couple weeks. Plan on becoming semi amphibious and spending 90% of my time at the creek.

  • Toxic road chemicals and dog poop go straight into the water. basically anything in the gutter or our lawns. kids put their hands in their mouths. bed-sediment assessment shows polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, phthalates, heavy metals, and total polychlorinated biphenyls were found to be above criteria for the protection of aquatic life. It also does not meet water quality standards because of high fecal coliform levels. nasty.

  • FYI: there is a woman with a very aggresive dog walking in RCP on the weekends (close to the Resorvoir Rd entance @ GU hospital)
    The dog attacked a friends dog (3 weeks ago) and she (the owner) did not attempt to restrain her animal.
    It took 2 adults to get the dog off and my friends dog had been bitten 5 times. One bite very close to it’s carotid artery. When the woman was alerted to the bleeding dog, she did nothing, and kept walking.
    The dog is a small pitbull/american bulldog mix. Brown and white markings. The woman is caucasion, 5 ‘8’ 140 lbs with a water bottle attached to her waist- she was wearing a light blue t-shirt, cargo type shorts and hiking boots.
    I would be very careful if you are walking your dog (or it is off leash- like about 99% of dogs) and you see this couple. She has no regard for the safety of humans or dogs.

  • Rock Creek has several stormwater outlets along it. While in THEORY this would just be debris/chemicals that rain water sweeps off streets and sidewalks. Because we have a combined sewage and stormwater system in DC which means that stormwater mixes with sewage in the same pipe whenever we get more than an inch or so of rain, in practice this does mean that untreated sewage also outlets into the creek. This is seen as preferable to having sewage back up into homes and businesses up through toilets when our waste water treatment plant can’t handle the volume of water that a rain storm creates.

  • For what it’s worth… a colleague of mine at a previous job saw a car go into Rock Creek. She and some other bystanders intervened and rescued the woman.

    They saved her from drowning, but they were notified a while later that the woman had died from some kind of lung infection from bacteria that had gotten into her lungs during the incident.

    Maybe the Rock Creek bacteria is OK as long as it doesn’t get into your lungs, but I’d recommend that people and dogs stay out of the creek, just to be on the safe side.

    • Wow, crazy. CB posted a link to the American Whitewater Association that talks about the same accident. Apparently it happened back in June 2001.

  • My dog swam in Rock Creek 2 years ago and got so sick he was close to death. We spent $2000 getting him better. I’d highly discourage anyone from getting in that water.

  • I grew up playing in and around the creek during summers–always north of the old mill (Park/Tilden), generally closer to Military Rd. We never got sick. Granted, this was in the 90’s and I don’t remember whether my parents knew/approved at the time or not. I also have no idea whether the creek is likely to be more or less clean today than it was then.

    If you’re really curious about the cleanliness of the water, you can go to a pool supply store and pick up some water testing kits. They should tell you whether the pH levels are safe and if there are large amounts of icky bacteria.

  • I don’t know about humans swimming in there, but last summer I saw a beaver swimming around in it! Couldn’t believe my eyes.

  • I used to swim in it when I was little. It was also teaming with fish. you could dip a bucket in and just pull out the shad. But now i am old and it is dirty

  • absolutely not – especially after it rains. it is a combined sewer overflow system.

  • One thing that can help with water cleanliness is promoting better stormwater management in the city (and up in the watershed). As many people have mentioned, there’s a combined sewer overflow system here which discharges raw sewage into the creek during storms. A few things that help are: more permeable pavement/less concrete, green roofs, more tree cover, bioswales. Insist on it whenever there is new development in your area. Every bit helps.

    • Incentives like tax credits for green-roofs would go a long way.

      • There are lots of incentives out there – the District Dept of the Environment, in fact, offers grants for green roof installation. Green infrastructure can make a HUGE difference! There are lots of low-cost options, too, like choosing native plants for your garden. And don’t use too much water during rain events – like showering, running the dishwasher, or doing laundry – because that water, soap and all, goes directly into whatever body of water you live closest to.

  • The creek starts in rural(ish) Maryland and is then impounded by Lake Needwood.

    The water in the lake is nasty (see below). When the water is released from the lake, it’s joined by all sorts of runoff from local strees and, during rainstorms, raw sewage. So, yea, pretty bad.

    NOTICE: Park Users Advised to Avoid Contact with Water at Lake Needwood

    Microcystin, a toxic substance produced by blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), has been detected in Lake Needwood. Water that contains microcystin can cause severe liver damage if ingested. Please avoid all contact with the lake water, and do not allow dogs or other pets to swim in or drink from the lake. Swimming is prohibited at all times in Lake Needwood. Fishing and boating in the lake is allowed, but visitors are urged to use good hand cleaning practices prior to eating, drinking, or smoking. If eating fish caught from Lake Needwood, visitors should eat only muscle meat and ensure that the fish is cooked properly.

  • Uhhmm, I used to jog up the creek daily – in the summer you encounter some *ahem* interesting smells. Sorry but I would never wade in water that smells like dirty a**.

    And yes, up by the zoo there is a sewage overflow and sign clearly posted warning you to avoid contact with the water.

  • its probably pretty good for the kids to play in it. they’re resilient. if they get sick they’ll get over it. on the plus side, you will greatly harden their immune system for life. unfortnately, adults are probably SOL. at the very least, you’ll have to use sick days or lose wages

  • Paddling, however, is permitted:

    I’ve seen kayaking many times when the water level is high enough.

    • I love how the content of this page flows based on timeline. Jan 2000: “Great news! We can paddle here!” May 2001: “Don’t enter the creek, it’s full of bacteria.” June 2001: “Some woman got water in her lungs and DIED from a bacterial infection.”

      How could anybody read this and say “Awesome, time to go kayaking in Rock Creek this weekend!” I guess public safety can only go so far in protecting people from themselves.

  • I’m with Rock Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit working to clean up Rock Creek.

    People are right that Rock Creek is not safe for swimming, wading, or dogs, particularly during the first 72 hours after it rains. For more information, see

    Join us to help make it cleaner! Our website,, has information about Rock Creek, what we and others are doing, and how people can help. If you’re interested in volunteering, please sign up for our email. We send out a newsletter once a month with a list of opportunities. We’re also on Facebook.

  • Good evening.

    I cannot speak to current conditions, but for what it’s worth:

    As a youngster in the 1960’s, I well remember Summers of having splashed, waded, swam, bathed, paddled and tread water in Rock Creek, Sligo Creek and Northwest Branch.

    With us were schools of small Fish, Turtles, Crawfish, Bright Green headed Mallard Ducks, and on the shoreline Heron and White Egret wading birds, loud Woodpeckers, Gray Squirrels, Butterflies and sensitive White Tailed Deer.

    There were also Water Snakes, but you felt safe as we could see very clearly through the water. So clear, we could see our feet and toes as if not under the current, the mild rush of water that were these Creeks of Washington.

    It was also a great local source for small wild fresh-water Crawfish before they were commercially farmed as they are now.

    They were like very small Lobsters.

    Today, the water dam at Peirce Mill remains one of my favorite spots anytime of the year, and now with the added Fish Ladder:

  • My dog got a bacterial infection in one ear and a yeast infection in the other after a swim at the dog beach behind Montrose/Dumbarton Oaks Park. I don’t let her swim there anymore, unfortunately, and would definitely not do it right after a heavy rain.

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