A swimable creek

6 min readMar 11, 2024

On a hot summer afternoon, in the not-so-distant future, I want to grab a towel and some flip flops and wander down to my favorite swimming hole for a cooling dip in the water. It’s just a neighborhood creek, about 10 minutes away by foot. But the water is deep enough to swim. Maybe some kids will have tied up a rope swing on an overhanging tree. I’ll give it a try.

How fun and refreshing and natural would that be?

Rock Creek in Autumn

The creek in question is Rock Creek, which runs through a national park in the heart of north-west Washington DC, and near my house.

But splashing around Rock Creek is not a good idea. The creek is too polluted and any contact with the water is considered a health hazard. In 1971, lawmakers in DC placed a ban on swimming or wading in Rock Creek due to the pollution in the waters, also banning swimming in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. After decades of work, there is some progress to show. Both the Potomac and the Anacostia often show up pretty clean in testing. People are beginning to talk about lifting the ban on swimming. But Rock Creek remains pretty dirty. In fact, the testing stations closest to where I live consistently show high levels of e. coli. The closest testing site, at Normanstone Run, is “off the charts” and consistently the worst location for E. coli. Normanstone Run is is actually in the district I represent as an ANC Commissioner.

Rock Creek E. coli testing at various points. Source.

E. coli is, to be impolite, poop. Human poop, dog poop, toilet water flowing into the creek. When DC sewers were being built 100+ years ago, they weren’t too careful about separating poop from rain water. Heavy rain would overflow the system and cause sewage to flow directly into the creek rather than the sewage treatment plant. [See a cool website on the history of DC’s waterways and sewers here.]

Sewage overflows aren’t a rare thing. They happen all the time. The biggest source of sewage into Rock Creek is Piney Branch, a nearby creek which drains a big area of the city’s surface. When t rains, all that water collects in the pipes, flows into the system, overloads it and dumps sewage into Piney Branch, and then into Rock Creek. This happens about 25 times a year.

Sewage outflow near the National Zoo.

The good news is that slowly slowly things are getting better. DC Water, the public utility that manages DC water and sewers is spending a huge amount to clean up our rivers and streams. DC Water spent $2.7 billion to dig a five-mile long tunnel to collect rain water and prevent sewage overflows into the Anacostia River. That’s having a good effect on the Anacostia River. Swimming in the Anacostia River is no longer a distant dream, but a near-term reality.

DC Water is going to spend another pile of money to dig a tunnel along Piney Branch, so raw sewage doesn’t flow into Rock Creek. It will take years to complete, but it will be a big improvement. Piney Branch is upstream of my swimming hole, so it will help my dream of a summer swim in Rock Creek. There are other sewer overflows upstream, especially near the Zoo, but the biggest one will be corrected.

Piney Branch storage tunnel will collect storm water to avoid sewer overflows into the creek.

But this won’t solve the problem of Normanstone Run, my dirty, pretty little creek. Why is Normanstone Run so dirty? We don’t really know. It’s probably not the storm overflows, because the stormwater and sewer lines have been separated in that area. Some people think it’s people camping out in the woods nearby. Some people think houses in the area aren’t connected to the sewer system correctly: there are a lot of foreign embassies and residences in the neighborhood, and their plumbers may not understand the local sewer system correctly. Maybe it’s dog or deer poop flowing into the creek? Maybe it’s something else. It’s going to take more study to figure out how to clean up this little creek. And probably a lot of money when we fix the problem. But as the elected representative for Normanstone Run, I feel that I should take up this case and push for a cleaner creek.

DC Water is spending a lot of money to clean up our rivers and creeks. But they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. There are laws that mandate they clean up their pollution. And they’ve been taken to court to force them to do it. They are doing a lot of work to clean up the rivers and creeks. But there’s a lot more to do, and they won’t do it without pressure and patience.

For centuries, humans treated rivers and creeks as literal sewers and dumped anything we didn’t want — including toilet water — directly into the water. Eventually, we realized we should clean things up, send raw sewage for treatment, and keep garbage out of our waterways — if only because they are also the source of our drinking water. But that project is still incomplete and your average river or creek isn’t safe for drinking or even swimming.

Cleaning up our rivers and creeks is hugely expensive. Is it worth it? After all, we can have clean water to drink without cleaning them up. And we can build an awful lot of swimming pools for the amount of money it will cost to clean up Rock Creek. From a purely cost-benefit analysis, it’s not clear that it’s worth it.

But, for me, it’s not just a question of value, but an issue of values. What are we here for? What is the purpose of our collective action? What are our obligations to future generations? Do we have obligations to creation and nature, to restore harms?

Personally, I think restoring the health of our creeks and rivers fits into a more nebulous, but more values-inflected notion of public purpose. Rock Creek is a beloved jewel in the middle of our city. Tens of thousands of DC residents and visitors can and do enjoy Rock Creek Park as a respite from the heat, from the noise of the city, as a retreat and a point of contact with nature and our spiritual selves. The idea that a dirty and unhealthy band of water sits at the bottom of this special place really bothers me.

So, someday, I want to have a swim in the creek on a hot afternoon. For me, it will be lovely and normal. But, for society it will represent a huge feat of engineering and public mobilization to clean up a dirty creek in the middle of the city. A restoration. And it will be worth it.

In December, I joined a Rock Creek Conservancy work team to clean up Normanstone Run.

[Note: I want to credit Jeanne Braha and the Rock Creek Conservancy for teaching me a lot about these issues and for their powerful advocacy for a cleaner and healthier Rock Creek. Also credit to the DC Water Clean Rivers team for providing good information and presentations on their work and for doing the heavy work of building a new, cleaner infrastructure. ANC3C recently hosted them to talk about cleaning up Rock Creek. You an see the presentations here.]





I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.