The Potomac River is 405 miles long and is located within the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The Potomac River is considered the fourth largest river along the Atlantic coast and the 21st largest river in the United States and is the northern border of McLean, Virginia. On the left descending bank, the river forms part of the borders between Washington, D.C. and Maryland, and on the right descending bank, the river separates Virginia and West Virginia.
Potomac is the European spelling of Patowmeck, the name of a Native American village on the river’s southern bank. Native Americans had different names for different parts of the river. The section of the river above Great Falls was called “Cohongarooton,” meaning “honking geese,” while the section below Great Falls was called “Patawomke,” meaning “river of swans.”
The Potomac River is significant for several reasons. George Washington not only chose to build his home near the Potomac River, he forever identified it as the “Nation’s River.” The Potomac also serves as the southern headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay and is the historic lifeblood of the nation’s capital, remaining a living force of sustenance to the most critical estuary in the Eastern United States.
Some favorite pastimes on and around the Potomac River include fishing, hiking, boating, sightseeing, and wildlife watching. Over four million people visit Chesapeake and the Ohio Canal National River Park each year, with the Great Falls of the Potomac River being one of the parks most significant attractions.
One of the parks situated along the bank of the Potomac River is called Great Falls Park. Great Falls is a small National Park Service site near McLean, Virginia where visitors can see the falls from several different vantage points. This 800-acre park is beautiful and is great for exploring both history and nature.
While the Potomac River is one of the nation’s most famous rivers and has been a great attraction to tourists, back in 1965, it was an entirely different story. In fact, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the river “a national disgrace” because of all the pollution. Wetlands and rivers surrounding the area were being filled in and destroyed, thus leaving the river overrun with algae and garbage. Streams were impacted by mining and deforestation, becoming loaded with nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment. Runoff from urban areas contaminated the water as well and further contributed to the river’s deterioration.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act started the road to recovery not only for the Potomac River but also rivers all across the country. Thanks to this, the Potomac is much healthier than it was before and has become the attraction for recreation that it is today. The rivers top three pollutants are on the decline and the fish that were once at risk in the river basin are finally making a comeback. While runoff is still an issue near urban areas, progress is still being made for the river that is the lifeline to the Chesapeake Bay and one day it will re-achieve the excellent standards of our Nation’s River.