Warning: pollution may occur during rainfall in Rock Creek
September 8, 2010 | by Katie Manning
Photo by Katie ManningDuring a muggy afternoon this summer, I took a detour from my concrete-neighborhood running route onto the dirt trails of Rock Creek Park. My Nike’s strode across the grassy path to the left of P Street Bridge, which rests directly above the creek just past Rose Park.
As I made my way into the well-tended park trail, I passed friendly faces enjoying the shade of tall oak trees. Then, I smelled a horrible stench rising from the otherwise picturesque creek. I noticed out of the corner of my eye a chocolate-brown sign seamlessly blending in with the trees. The sign warns of a “combined sewer overflow discharge point,” and cautions, “Pollution may occur during rainfall.” As I continued on the path, my gaze darted toward the creek. Teenagers and dogs were splashing around in the water.
Park users and their pets swim in a creek that takes in sewage overflow 70 times per year according to the Water and Sewer Authority (DCWSA). Rock Creek Park originally set out to "provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park." Considering that exposure to sewage can cause serious health risks, visitors should be aware that raw sewage overflows into the park whenever there is heavy rain. Park Police Sergeant David Schlosser says there are no laws against swimming in the creek.
Debbie Schreiber, 57, a board member of the Dupont Circle Citizen’s Association, walks her small, chestnut-colored terrier Millie in the park often. Schreiber says Millie swims in the creek without getting sick. After hearing about the issues, Schreiber added, ”Now, I’m getting more concerned.”
Considering that D.C. is a metropolitan area, it came as a surprise that sewage is dumped into a creek running through the city. Pamela Mooring, a spokeswoman at the Water and Sewer Authority, thinks the alternative is worse. She says, "With the rainwater, the sewage would back up into streets and into peoples’ basements. This system is so it doesn’t back up there. It goes into the nearest waterway.”
This method of dealing with sewage overflow is slated to be gone within two decades. DCWASA has a lofty goal to decrease sewage by 96% in Rock Creek under a 20-year-plan started in 2005. So far, they’ve decreased the sewage coming into Rock Creek by 40%.
Still, there are no laws against swimming. Sergeant Schlosser thinks that the signs are a sufficient warning not to swim in the creek. He says, “If there is a sewage issue that’s something you need to think about before you swim.” Exposure to sewage can cause diarrhea, Hepatitis, parasites, worms and other health problems according to the University of Kentucky.
Until the Rock Creek waterways are safe to swim in, D.C. officials need a stronger warning about the untreated sewage coming into the creek. As summer comes to an end - cooling the air and water temperatures - the stream of swimmers should start to trickle. But for now, visitors dip into the waters worry-free, potentially causing serious health problems.