Guest Blog by Olivia Pickens

Like many urban water systems, the Washington DC area rivers have been plagued by water quality issues for years. The District Department of Energy and Environment, however, is hoping to make a difference with its new Citizen Science Water Quality Monitoring Program. The goal of the program is to alert the general public about water quality by sending out volunteers to conduct a series of weekly water tests and sharing the results.

In 2019 the District Department of Energy and Environment issued a grant to Anacostia Waterkeepers to implement a system of water quality testing. The program partnered with Rock Creek Conservancy, Potomac Riverkeepers Conservancy, and Audubon Naturalist Society. Every Wednesday, the program deploys teams of local volunteers to 22 spots across the Potomac River, the Anacostia River, and Rock Creek. The volunteers measure the water temperature and pH as well as collect water samples that are later sent back to a lab and measured for bacteria coliform and turbidity. Becoming a volunteer requires no prior experience other than a three hour training session followed by a brief test.

I became a certified water quality monitor through Anacostia Riverkeepers this summer. My specific water testing is completed through Rock Creek Conservancy, one of the partner organizations on the project. Every Wednesday, I get up early and head to my designated location to begin the water tests. Because I live near Rock Creek, my spot is usually walking distance from my house. First, I measure the air and water temperature and then I measure the pH using a test strip. Finally, I collect two separate water samples (one for bacteria and one for turbidity) and label each of them. We then write our results on a sheet of paper, including any observations about the water color or smell, and return our data and samples to the staff at Rock Creek Conservancy, who send the results to Anacostia Waterkeepers for testing. I think this initiative is important because it gives local residents accurate information about their water, and the best part is, the research is all conducted by other locals. Even though Rock Creek often has dangerously high levels of bacteria and fecal coliform, particularly after summer rains, I still occasionally see kids wading in the water or dogs trekking through. I hope my research helps alert the public that at least right now the water isn’t safe or swimmable. This program also allows me to help my community. I love that I get to use my passion for environmental issues to contribute to my city.

Because of mandated improvements, the Anacostia river water quality has improved in recent years. The city is taking action by implementing new spillover tunnels so sewage will not spill over into the Anacostia and Potomac as well as banning plastic straws to reduce water pollution. And even though there is still a long way to go for water quality in the D.C. area, this initiative seems to raising awareness of water quality issues. Swimming is still prohibited, but the hope is that water quality will improve to the extent that swimming will eventually be allowed. Ideally this citizen science reporting on Rock Creek and the other DC waterways will draw more attention to the problem so that the water quality issues can be better addressed.

For more information about the DC DOEE Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program and to see weekly water quality results from Anacostia Riverkeepers, see below:

Editor’s note: Olivia Pickens is an EarthEcho Water Challenge Ambassador and a high school student at the Sidwell Friends School. Want to join Olivia in taking action to monitor your local waterways? Take part in the EarthEcho Water Challenge to collect and share data on the health of your community's water resources.