The Potomac Watershed – From All Sides

By Ellen Schmitt and Susan Spielberger

More often than not, watersheds cross political boundaries.  Take the Potomac River for example.  It drains an area of 14,670 square miles in four states: Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.  As part of the larger Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the Potomac River delivers a significant amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment to the Chesapeake Bay.

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Morning fog over the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer jm6553 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

Besides its contribution to downstream nutrient pollution, the Potomac basin itself faces a number of threats to its source water quality. One of these threats is a rapid growth in urban population which accounts for 81% of the basin’s 6.11 million residents, and is expected to grow by more than 1 million people over the next 20 years.

The environmental challenges presented by the Potomac River, as well as other mid-Atlantic waters often require the attention of different EPA programs.   Here’s what two of us do to protect “the Nation’s River” here in EPA, Region 3.


I work in the Drinking Water Branch and we’re working with the Potomac River Basin Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership to protect the river and its tributaries as sources of drinking water.  Protecting the source water in the first place is the best preventative step to providing safe drinking water.   Hand and glove with this are the other usual steps including treatment at water plants, a safe drinking water distribution system, and increasing the awareness of consumers of protecting drinking water sources. This approach makes sense because some substances can’t be removed at water treatment facilities and it’s often much less expensive to treat the water if contaminants are kept out in the first place.  Examples of source water protection activities are: keeping manure from farms out of streams to reduce the potential for pathogens entering the water; having a response plan in the event of a spill of hazardous materials; and working with transportation agencies to reduce the amount of salt spread on the region’s roads during the winter.

The Potomac Partnership is a unique collaboration, comprised of nearly 20 drinking water utilities and government agencies from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and DC focusing on source water protection activities addressing agriculture, urban run-off and emerging contaminants.


I work in the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division.  In 2010, Congress provided EPA with two million dollars in funding to restore and protect the Potomac Highlands (a part of Appalachia), and EPA selected American Rivers to administer this grant program.  My role in this program is serve as the technical contact for the projects that have been funded – eight of them –  ranging from $150,000 to $300,000, that focus on improving natural resources and socio-economic conditions.

Projects include stream bank restoration in Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia; land conservation projects in West Virginia and Pennsylvania where parcels with high ecological value are being protected through conservation easements; reclaiming mine land in the Monongahela National Forest by planting  native spruce trees; and constructing a green house/ shade house project in Frostburg, Maryland, on reclaimed mine land.

In selecting projects that will protect and restore the Potomac (as well as other mid-Atlantic waters), we emphasize a strategic approach to conservation – also known as the Green Infrastructure approach.   We emphasize the connectivity of forest “hubs” of high ecological value and their ability to either expand those hubs or connect the hubs together.  This is a more effective way to protect and restore natural systems because it strives to keep important areas intact and to restore ones that are degraded.


For more information about the Potomac watershed, check out this State of the Nation’s River Report from the Potomac Conservancy (PDF).  What kinds of activities are happening in the watershed where you live?  How else could it be approached, from all sides?


About the Authors: Susan Spielberger and Ellen Schmitt both work out of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic office in Philadelphia, PA.  Susan works in the Environment and Innovation Division in the Office of Environmental Information and Assessment, and Ellen works in the Water Protection Division’s Drinking Water Branch.

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