How Do You Speak for the River? A storybook guide to supporting the Potomac.

“Mister!” he said with a sawdusty sneeze,

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.

I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.

And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs” –

He was very upset as he shouted and puffed –

“What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”

So speaks the Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s environmental advocate. His book was published in 1971, at the height of the early environmental movement, and just a year before the passage of the Clean Water Act.

In Washington, D.C., the primary environmental resource may not be trees but water. D.C. is bordered on two sides by the Potomac River and its tributary, the Anacostia, which together flow into the Chesapeake Bay and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. Not only does the Potomac provide an ecosystem for local wildlife, but it also provides drinking water and recreation for D.C. residents – so it’s in the best interest for all species for the river to be healthy and clean.

But to speak for individual trees is one thing; how might one speak for as large a body as the river?

Here is a little friend who can help us learn.

Artwork by Grace Bautista

One group that is attempting to speak for the river is the Potomac Conservancy, based in Silver Spring, Maryland. For this group, speaking for the river doesn’t just mean picking up trash along its banks.

Here are some of the approaches that need to be taken to raise public awareness and protect the health of the Potomac.

Artwork by Grace Bautista

In order to speak for the river, advocates first need to make sure they know what the river needs. To facilitate this communication, the Potomac Conservancy conducts a “State of the River” report every few years to determine the health of the river. In the 2018 report, the team awarded the river with its highest ranking yet – a B.

This health ranking is determined by five factors: the amount of pollution in the river, the presence of native fish populations, the preservation of the river habitat, the health of the land, and access to the river for recreation. According to the report, pollution in the river has declined and native fish populations are healthier, but the Potomac still needs help to maintain the river habitat. This includes protecting forested buffers along the river, improving the tidal and stream water quality, and increasing the presence of underwater grasses.

The Potomac Conservancy publishes this report online as a resource for other river advocates such as the Alice Ferguson Foundation and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. By determining the river’s strengths and needs, advocates can develop better, focused policy regarding the Potomac.

Artwork by Grace Bautista

One of the surprising indicators of river health is the land around it. Natural land, farmland, and urban land all have a role to play in causing or preventing runoff into the Potomac. Urban runoff is more well-known, but agricultural runoff, especially from chemical pesticides, is also a common polluter of the river.

On the other hand, natural land and shoreline forests are a key player in protecting the river. Shoreline trees naturally filter out polluted runoff and serve as a strong buffer between human development and the river ecosystem. Because of this, river advocacy strongly supports maintaining and preserving riverside forests – even when it comes into conflict with other “green” efforts, such as a recent Georgetown University project that aimed to build a solar farm by clearing Maryland’s Nanjemoy forest.

To speak for the river on this front, the Potomac Conservancy works with landowners along the Potomac to create conservation easements, which create restrictions for use of the land (such as no mining or no subdivision) that remains intact forever, even as the land is passed to heirs. This is also a popular strategy among land conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Land Trust Alliance.

Another strategy to protect watershed land is to purchase it yourself, which the Potomac Conservancy team did in 2015 when they bought a West Virginia mountain located upstream on the Potomac. The team then donated it to the West Virginia government with a conservation easement to make sure it can no longer be developed and must be open for public access. The forests along this mountain are now protected and will, in turn, help protect the Potomac.

Artwork by Grace Bautista

If a tree falls by the Potomac, but there’s no one there to hear it, does it really make a sound? What’s the good of speaking for the river if there’s no one there to listen?

To raise an audience, the Potomac Conservancy hosts events to encourage residents in the Potomac watershed to get outside and experience the river. These events can take many forms, including local clean-ups, recreation on the river – such as paddle boarding or kayaking – and meet-ups for seed collection or hiking.

Much of the communication encouraging people to come to these events is done over social media, utilizing several different platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts as well as Instagram stories. The Potomac Conservancy also works to keep its audience of river advocates informed about river news like the EPA’s decision to repeal a Clean Water Act rule and the resurgence of dolphins in the river.

Artwork by Grace Bautista

When speaking for the river, it’s important who you’re speaking to, and in order to make change, you want to speak to those in charge.

In order to tackle larger issues, especially when it comes to the source of pollution in the river, the Potomac Conservancy must petition the local and federal government. Once the group has developed a following who will listen to its voice, it launches campaigns asking its following to vote for specific people or contact their representatives.

For example, the group recently asked Virginia citizens to “vote for clean water” in their 2019 elections, which resulted in more environmentally-friendly candidates being chosen.

Speaking for the river is essential to protecting a resource used by the entire watershed.

The Potomac Conservancy is just one example of groups supporting and protecting “the nation’s river.” However, the organization still has a small reach, and works primarily in the D.C. area rather than the entire Potomac watershed. In order to protect the river, people need to be advocating for its health and purity everywhere it touches. Without people to speak for this natural resource, it remains voiceless and prone to pollution and exploitation.

As the Lorax himself says, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Created By
Lizzie Stricklin


Created with an image by Mateus Campos Felipe - "untitled image"