Nor Any Drop to Drink
By Ranjit Singh
As a teenager, I remember seeing a retro ad in a glossy magazine like Smithsonian or maybe National Geographic. If you bought a subscription, they’d send you a small, cap-like canvas bag of a type outdoorsmen used back in the day. You just dipped it over the side of your canoe into the river or lake, took a cool drink, and paddled on. There was a pen-and-ink picture of a man doing exactly that. I was struck by the realization that such wild, unclaimed water was once potable. If you tried that now on the place I was raised, Potomac Creek, you’d die. Or wish you had.
Potomac Creek feeds the Chesapeake Bay via the Potomac River, and the Bay is in serious trouble. It’s polluted and foul. Each of the Bay’s seven cooperating jurisdictions (Virginia plus five other states and Washington, D.C.) has agreed to meet important clean up deadlines by 2025. By that time, all pollution control measures are supposed to be in place for the Bay to begin healing. But the commitments aren’t being kept. Joe Wood, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, confirms that whatever the excuses, the basic fact is painfully clear, (though the water is anything but): “We’re still severely behind.”
So what does “severely behind” actually mean for life in and around Potomac Creek?
In accordance with the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, the 2022 report of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) lists Potomac Creek as a Category 5 “impaired water.” This is the worst of the EPA’s five categories, and it’s been that way for awhile. The Creek received the same bad score in previous DEQ reports.
Category 5 basically means that at least one of the waterway’s designated uses–public water supply, sustaining aquatic life, recreation, etc.– is “impaired or threatened.” The most significant current problem is that Potomac Creek’s pH levels are harmful for aquatic life. And that’s not all. Water quality tests by DEQ and local scientists also show elevated PCBs and E. coli bacteria levels in Potomac Creek and its tributary, Accokeek Creek. (The DEQ lists both creeks a category 4 for E. coli.)
PCBs are chemicals that pose serious health risks to humans who consume affected fish. High levels of E. coli bacteria, which often come from untreated sewage, can cause severe intestinal and kidney illness. In adjacent Aquia Creek, also a Category 5 impaired water, the problems are E. coli levels and algal blooms, which cause dead zones.
In short, Potomac Creek, its tributary Accokeek Creek, and its neighbor Aquia Creek all fail to meet standards set to ensure safety for people or aquatic life. They are also poisoning the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. And while Potomac Creek is supposed to be on a federally- mandated pollution diet, like most diets, this one isn’t going very well.
That’s the scientific analysis. In layman’s terms, Potomac Creek is a dump.
Every mob hitman knows at least one environmental fact: If you throw something into the woods or river, it exits the human world. My key ring holds a key I pulled from the ignition of a 1949 Ford pickup I found abandoned in the woods in southern Stafford County with a couple of other rusty vehicles. Enveloped by cedars, and with bramble and vines growing up through its floorboard, the Ford is lost to the world for most of the year. The surrounding woods are littered with antique stoves, broken washing machines, and other objects no one wanted to pay to get rid of.
Similarly, Potomac Creek is full of tires, clothes, plastic bags, abandoned crab pots and fishing nets, soda bottles, COVID masks, and anything else that people can leave behind, throw out, or let blow into a substantial body of water. A good low tide is an adventure: plastic oil bottles, a shoe or hat, maybe even an outboard motor. Moving upstream through Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve towards Brooke Road, the Creek’s flow is much disturbed by bridges, roadwork, and the wide, clear-cut easements of Dominion Energy’s powerlines. The Fredericksburg and Stafford County regional landfill is perched atop the Creek’s wetlands. The Creek recently caught a break when locals stymied a politician’s plan to build a commercial tire incinerator there. It lost out, though, decades ago, when a heating oil truck crashed into an unnamed stream that crosses Unicorn Farm (where I grew up) and feeds into Potomac Creek, releasing its toxic load into the marshes. Farther up still, and the Creek–there just a brook–flows under the greasy gauntlets of the Route 1 and I-95 bridges, catching the colorful detritus of passing trucks and vacationers.
This trashing started during the Colonial era. Yet up until just a few decades ago, a summer night’s drive along Brooke Road, which crosses the Creek, still produced a windshield covered with splatted bugs of impressive diversity. The humid marshland offered up species like a febrile Jackson Pollock. I recall nights when my car’s low beams revealed an incalculable number of green frogs crossing the road, all pointed in the same direction. It was awful to drive through their zombie-like procession. In the morning, frog slime covered the asphalt. But the amphibians would be back again the next night.
That unavoidable slaughter, a visceral indicator of biological plenty, is now gone. The World Wildlife Fund reports that 60 percent of the world’s mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have disappeared since 1970. We need look no further than Potomac Creek to believe it. How can anyone comprehend or place value on so much lost life?
So what does this mean for our species when nearly all the flowing waters in our region are sicker than they look, and have been that way for years? The cause is no mystery, and concerned scientists and activists have offered no shortage of specific courses of action. “It seems time our race began to think as an adult does,” writes environmentalist poet Robinson Jeffers, “rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person.”
Jeffers’ frustration is understandable, but I think he’s wrong. I’m beginning to suspect that the hardest environmental choice we face is more likely a metaphysical one, and that the real trick to helping Potomac Creek is not to think like an adult, but like a kid.
Let’s recall, for example, a time when much of that missing life I described earlier was still around. For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, proximity to Washington, D.C. meant we lived within the blast radius of more than one Soviet nuclear weapon. The official advice in case of nuclear war was to stay inside and listen to the radio. Libraries had fallout shelters marked by unmistakable black and yellow signs–three downwards triangles within a circle–and, presumably, stocked with crackers. Military experts discussed missile payloads and throw-weights. Adults calculated over dinner how many Russians and Chinese each American soldier would have to kill to reach parity on an apocalyptic battlefield. On TV, over 100 million people watched The Day After, a film largely about family farms like ours, caught in a barren, post-nuclear strike America.
Clearly, adults were not the solution. My immature self looked for a way to cope. How does one manage thoughts of everyone they know dying all at once, probably without warning? How did you do it, if you’re old enough to remember those days?
Literary scholar David Copland Morris has argued that when humanity sees itself as the sole source of values, it “removes the ground for value.” I found solace in reimagining Earth as a place where human affairs were not all-important. It was warming to think we weren’t really alone here, and that in our absence life would bring continuity even to a wounded planet. Bad things happen and the band plays on. I roundly embraced this child’s realism. Astronomer Carl Sagan lent a cosmic assist here; his true gift wasn’t just providing wonder, but hope, rooted in a mind-bending yet unassailably real perspective. Later, in college and afterward, I learned others, too, like Morris, were finding comfort in valuing life beyond our own species.
Angsty teens often discover that the spotlight (metaphysical or otherwise) isn’t all that liberating. I see it with my oldest son now. In school plays he always chooses to work off-stage. A fifteen-year-old besieged by a pandemic, mass shootings, and climate change, he adores astronomy, and even penned a letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson. He hikes, fishes, observes nature closely, and shuns human-centered news. Of course, in other ways he is a focal point of the universe–our universe, anyway–like any much-loved teen. But there’s a sadness there, too. I see him struggling to balance a terrifying reality with the need to do something about it. Perhaps he mourns a world of life he’s never known, and never will. Today even billionaires want to run to Mars.
Wish them Godspeed. Maybe the first step to sanity is learning to act effectively from the wings, not center stage. Check your self-importance and not all bad things need happen.
Till then, don’t eat the fish.
Ranjit Singh teaches politics at the University of Mary Washington and chairs the board of the non-profit Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. He’s working on a book about people, nature, and land on Potomac Creek, and his essay “Enter the Coyote” appeared in Pie & Chai last year. He blogs at on-the-creek.blogspot.com (or check out @3lions99).