After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

The Anacostia River Plunge

For the last decade I have written, talked, and sometimes even done things to promote clean water in the Chesapeake Bay region and beyond. But one thing I have always refused to do was to participate in that unique Chesapeake Bay tradition known as “the wade-in.”

The practice was made popular by my good friend and trusted ally, former Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler, who has conducted his wade-in for more than two decades. As regular as the fish that return to the Bay each spring, on the second Sunday in June, Sen. Fowler and his followers return to the banks of the Patuxent to see how far they can walk in the water before their shoes become obscured by the thick flow of agricultural pollution, mud and sewage that plague that troubled river. Politicians make speeches, friends are acknowledged for their hard work, and Bernie loses sight of his feet at about 30 inches (never much different than the year before).

I have avoided this event and others like it, despite my sincere admiration for Bernie Fowler, because I do not think they go far enough. Like many others, I have concluded that it is time for us to go farther, deeper, to do more. No more tinkering around the water’s edge. It’s time to take the plunge. So on June 30th, one day prior to the 28th anniversary of the Clean Water Act’s due date for making our nation’s rivers swimmable, a small group of environmental policy experts and scientists will defy the recommendation of health officials and our own better judgment, and we swim will in one of the nation’s dirtiest rivers—the Anacostia.

Anacostia River
(Illustration courtesy Anacostia Watershed Society.)

The Anacostia has been closed for swimming for as long as anyone can remember, and for good reason. Despite the hard work of countless volunteers and environmental professionals the river remains polluted—defiled by a vile mixture of two billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water that desecrate its sacred waters each year. As well as the annual insult of 70,000 tons of trash, toxic pollution and sediments that further degrade the once mighty Anacostia.

Public health officials promise, if you believe them, that the river will be restored by 2032 (my friend Bernie Fowler will be 108 years old in 2032 and my 4-year son will have spent his entire childhood without having had the chance to swim in the nation’s Capital River). The point is this: Rivers around this region, and in fact around the globe, are looking more and more like the Anacostia with each passing year. Sewage spills, beach closures, off-limits rivers—all are a regular part of modern life.

The reality is that we know what the solutions are. For the Anacostia it is sewage and storm water upgrades. For the rivers of the Eastern Shore it is meaningful agricultural regulations. And for the rivers in between it is some combination of these needed changes.

So instead of packing our cars and heading to the beach this holiday weekend, a small group of us are going to skip the celebrations, and swim in the Anacostia. I’ll be joined by the Anacostia Riverkeeper, leaders from the Anacostia Watershed Society, former U.S. Senator Joe Tydings (D-Md.), Maryland state Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County), former Maryland state senators David Harrington and Gerald Winegrad and leading scientists. We’ll don (mock) hazmat suits to dramatize the toxicity of the river, and publicize the 28 years of broken promises.

In doing so, we hope to remind a few people of the lost treasure in nation’s back yard, of the promises made by our government when they passed the Clean Water Act—promises now overdue by 28 years—and of the solutions that are in reach.

Will you join us to witness this event? We hope so. Details here.

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