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Splash! Event Delayed to July 13

A swim in the Anacostia River — Splash! —organized by the Anacostia Riverkeeper scheduled for June 29 has been delayed until July 13.

“Following Wednesday’s weather, and out of an abundance of caution for the safety of all participants, we took additional water quality samples on Friday,” the Riverkeeper said in a statement posted to X (formerly Twitter). “They have come back above E. coli recreational standards.”

It would be the first legal swim in the Anacostia River in 52 years. Each registered swimmer is assigned a 20-minute block to swim in the river, starting from the Kingman Island Dock (3101 Benning Rd. NE).

But swimming is still illegal in the District. Splash! is possible due to a 2018 amendment to DC Code that allows the Director of District’s Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) to grant permission for a one-day swimming event on the Anacostia River.

Delays

It is third delay to the event, originally scheduled for July 2023. The initial event was delayed to September after heavy rainfall affected water quality. That may also have been impacted by simultaneous work on the new northeast boundary tunnel, which was finally completed in September 2023, delaying the event a second time.

“The first delay was because DC Water wouldn’t postpone their tunnel connection work by half a week and the second was due to the tropical storm remnants of a hurricane on the second day of fall-both relatively unique events,” Anacostia Riverkeeper Trey Sherard told the Hill Rag.

“We don’t know yet what caused this contamination but we’re doing extra monitoring and looking upstream to see if we can sort out what happened. The results we saw from yesterday’s samples are very surprising given the light intensity of the storm Wednesday night.”

The cancellation surprised some attendees, coming about four hours before Splash! was set to begin. As recently as Thursday, the Riverkeeper said that water quality results from Wednesday passed all DC recreational water quality standards and that DOEE had given Splash! the go-ahead.

The weather looked good and participants signed up to jump said they were looking forward to jumping in the river on Saturday.

But, the Anacostia Riverkeeper decided to test the water again on Friday. That’s when they found high levels of E. Coli.

What is E. Coli?

E. Coli is found in the lower intestines of most mammals. It doesn’t cause illness on its own, but it is easy to detect in labratory tests. “High counts of E. coli indicate that the water is likely to be contaminated by feces, increasing the risk of exposure to pathogens that can cause illness,” the Clean Lakes Alliance explains on their website.

The District’s safe level for swimming is a level of 410 CFU/100mL. The Kingman Island site had passed all E. Coli monitoring throughout June but spiked on Friday to above 500.

E.Coli can cause diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. It is particularly dangerous to children and the elderly.

Those effects were recently felt by swimmers in Lake Anna, a reservoir in 72 miles south of the District where many Hill residents also have second homes. After the Memorial Day Long Weekend (May 24 to 27), 25 probable and confirmed E.Coli cases were reported to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). “VDH’s investigation is ongoing,” the department said in a press release. “No single cause of the outbreak has been identified, and it is possible we might not be able to identify the source.”

Lake Anna was created in 1972 by a dam on the North Anna River; it is not linked to the Anacostia River system. But the experience points to the importance of E.Coli monitoring.

High Standards

Swimming in the Anacostia has met with skepticism from some quarters. But both folks at DOEE and Anacostia Riverkeeper have both said that the existence of a swimming ban in the District means that events like this one are held to high monitoring standards, standards that don’t even exist in some other jurisdictions.

For instance, you can swim in the James River around Richmond, VA, regardless of E. Coli levels. According to the James River Association, which monitors water quality, on June 27 E. Coli levels at the 14th Street Station were 649. Those levels are a red, “high caution” and “above the threshold recommended for swimming,” –but that doesn’t mean can’t or won’t; and many people do.

The laws in the District mean you need a special permit from the District government for a legal swim; to get the go-ahead from DOEE, E. Coli levels must be deemed to be at healthy levels.

“The multiple delays, but especially this one, are a testament to our commitment to safety and I hope they serve to strengthen the public’s confidence in Anacostia Riverkeeper,” Sherard said. “It is an enormous hassle to postpone today and it’s certainly disappointing, but we’re playing the long game because the first ever legal swim on this river needs to set the right precedent and we will not risk that by rushing.”

There is no question that people want to jump into the Anacostia. The event has consistently been booked solid with a waitlist.

The District event was delayed only a week after Harbor Splash!, a similar event in Balltimore Harbor on the Patapsco River, took place. About 150 people jumped into the Baltimore harbor where the Healthy Harbor Initiative has similarly been championing the goal of a swimmable, fishable Baltimore Harbor. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott took plart in that June 23 swim. (No word yet on whether District officials will participate in the Kingman Island event).

Looking to the Future

Petra Baldwin, Project Coordinator for Water Quality Monitoring for Anacostia Riverkeeper, is part of a team that monitors water quality in the river.

“It’s definitely the best that it’s been, definitely in the past decade–decades, actually,” Baldwin told the Hill Rag last year. Multiple sites on the river pass water quality tests most of the time, including the Kingman Island Site.

Meanwhile, the Anacostia Riverkeeper has shifted their focus to July 13 and the next opportunity to jump into the river. “We remain persuaded that we’ll be swimming soon,” Sherard said. “[W]e’re very excited for July 13th and we’ll wait as long as we need to make it a fun and safe start to this new chapter in the Anacostia’s story.

Learn more about the Anacostia Riverkeeper, check for an opportunity to Splash! July 13 and get involved with the work to clean up our river by visiting www.anacostiariverkeeper.org

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