Washington, DC

Above: Boulder Bridge spans Rock Creek in Rock Creek Park. For many DC residents, this urban oasis provides a natural respite from the city. However, high bacteria levels from raw sewage and stormwater runoff challenge the health of the creek to the surprise of many visitors. Photo credit: Rock Creek Conservancy | Katy Cain

Recently, a Washington Post article confirmed what Rock Creek Conservancy has long known: there is a lot of work to be done to restore Rock Creek. While significant infrastructure upgrades and federal and local funding have been invested in the Anacostia watershed, the Rock Creek watershed remains in need of assistance.

A Tale of Two Sewers

The volunteer-driven bacteria monitoring project provides practical, week-by-week insights into high levels of bacteria in Rock Creek. So, where does all of this bacteria come from?

One-third of homes in DC are serviced by an older combined sewer system, occasionally overflows its bacteria-laden mix of stormwater and sewage directly into our waterways during heavy rains. In other parts of the city and most of Montgomery County, stormwater and sewers are separate, but stormwater runoff goes straight into Rock Creek. Stormwater carries pollutants from sources like fertilizer and pet waste.

Above: A stormwater outfall funnels bacteria-laden stormwater into Pinehurst Creek, a tributary of Rock Creek. Photo credit: Rock Creek Conservancy

Instead of tunnels a la the Anacostia, Rock Creek is receiving a groundbreaking green infrastructure solution to the stormwater problem. Rather than funneling stormwater away for costly treatment, green infrastructure aims to slow the water down, giving it time and space to soak into the ground through permeable pavement or water-friendly landscaping. Green infrastructure also has side benefits like beautifying our neighborhoods, providing habitat for native pollinators, making us happier, and cooling the urban heat island effect.

Above: The DC Department of Energy and Environment’s recent green infrastructure upgrades to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre parking lot guide urban runoff from the pavement into a rain garden, which is designed to catch, absorb, and filter the water before it can get to Rock Creek. These areas will be maintained by Rock Creek Conservancy. Photo credit: Katy Cain

Right now, Rock Creek Conservancy is working with DC Water’s Clean Rivers Program to disconnect downspouts from the combined sewer. Disconnection allows stormwater to flow from rooftops onto green spaces or a rain barrel instead of being funneled directly into the sewer. This simple action significantly decreases the chance for a combined sewer overflow. If you live in Manor Park, Shepherd Park, or nearby, check if your property is eligible by emailing [email protected]

Working Together for the Watershed

The Conservancy is proud to partner with project lead, Anacostia Riverkeeper, on the bacteria monitoring project to better understand what is in the water of all of the District’s waterways. Another project partner, Potomac Riverkeeper, works at a regional scale to protect the nation’s river and its tributaries (including Rock Creek). Audubon Naturalist Society, another project partner, has been monitoring the benthic communities (creek critters) at some of these bacteria monitoring sites for over 25 years. This substantial dataset played a crucial role in selecting sites for this year’s bacteria monitoring.

Above: This summer, volunteers were trained to collect water samples from DC’s waterways to be tested for bacterial content. The data from these collections are published every week on SwimGuide and trends will be used to identify problem areas and restoration strategies for Rock Creek. Photo credit: Rock Creek Conservancy | Emily Starobin

Land managers are also critical partners in the protection of Rock Creek. Most of us are familiar with the arrowhead and bison, symbols of the National Park Service (NPS), which manages Rock Creek Park in the District. This level of protection is the same as you’d have in Denali or Yosemite or Acadia – unimpaired, for current and future generations. That’s a high bar!

As you move north along Rock Creek you will find yourself in Montgomery County–which includes 80% of the land that ultimately drains to Rock Creek. Here, Montgomery Parks (Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission – MNCPPC) manages the parkland which surrounds and protects Rock Creek. Whether MNCPPC or NPS, Rock Creek’s parks act as a buffer that keeps stormwater out of Rock Creek – so they also bear the brunt of stormwater runoff.

Rock Creek Conservancy is the only organization dedicated to restoring ALL of Rock Creek. We convene partners throughout the Rock Creek watershed and coordinate our efforts so that future generations might one day be able to wade in Rock Creek again.

Clean Up the Creek!

You don’t have to be a non-profit or wear a ranger’s hat to make a difference. There are many actions you can take to help us restore this vital space.

1) Green your home: Throughout the Rock Creek watershed, there are programs to help residents install attractive landscaping and other green infrastructure, such as rain barrels and permeable pavers. These programs, RainScapes (Montgomery County) and RiverSmart (DC), as well as DOEE’s innovative Stormwater Retention Credit program, give residents the ability to make a difference from home.

Above: Rock Creek Conservancy volunteers put the final touches on a community rain garden, which catches stormwater and beautifies the neighborhood. Photo credit: Rock Creek Conservancy

2) Take Action Everyday: We can all help to reduce stormwater pollution with everyday actions: the next time you and your dog tromp the trails of Rock Creek, be sure to take your pet’s waste out with you. When gardening, use fertilizers sparingly (Montgomery County has great suggestions).

3) Volunteer with us! Conservancy volunteers restore the forests in Rock Creek Park, the final buffer that keeps stormwater out of the creek.

As always, we encourage you to keep loving Rock Creek by hiking, running, cycling, photographing, and picnicking in the parks, but also love it by protecting those parks from the inside out. What we do in all 80 square miles of the Rock Creek watershed matters and can be a major force for Rock Creek.


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