Securing Clean Water for DC

Photo: Krista Schlyer for The Nature Conservancy


By Daniel White

Potomac River water flows to the faucets of more than 4 million people in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Ensuring clean water means keeping a close eye on what goes into our streams and rivers.

One of the people keeping tabs on local waterways is Kahlil Kettering, director of urban conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Maryland and D.C. After joining the Conservancy in March, Kettering took a boat trip down the Anacostia River. Some of the sights were sobering.

“You see what’s happened to communities over the years due to how stormwater runoff is channeled into the river,” Kettering says. “You see people fishing, you know their families are eating that fish and you worry about those fish carrying carcinogens.”

At the same time, he adds, you also see signs of nature’s resilience. “Thanks to concerted clean-up efforts and the protected tree canopy at the National Arboretum, bald eagles have returned to nest along the river,” Kettering says. “Imagine the difference we can make by solving our stormwater challenge.”

The challenge D.C. faces is common to many urban centers. When rain washes off paved surfaces — streets, parking lots and driveways — and from construction sites, golf courses and lawns, it picks up pollution. This stormwater runoff then flushes into drains, which empty into streams that flow to larger waters such as Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.

A portion of the city’s stormwater flows to Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, where it is treated and then discharged into the Potomac. In many parts of the city, however, stormwater is funneled directly into streams and rivers, untreated.

Stormwater runoff affects not only drinking water downstream, but also the health of the Chesapeake Bay. “The end of the line for our stormwater pollution is the Chesapeake Bay,” Kettering says. “In fact, stormwater runoff from our cities and suburbs is the only source of pollution in the bay that is still increasing.” 

Kettering explains that the Conservancy’s solution is to balance pavement with green infrastructure — features such as constructed wetlands and rain gardens that absorb and filter polluted stormwater. Besides recreating natural processes in urban areas where stormwater now flushes directly into streams and rivers, these conservation projects also produce social benefits such as creating green jobs, reducing flood damage and beautifying neighborhoods.

The Conservancy will identify its first site and break ground on a green-infrastructure pilot project in spring 2016. In the meantime, Kettering says, the organization has been working to raise awareness of water issues through a dedicated website ( and to engage more residents in cleaning up local lands and waters.



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