For National Geographic News
Last month some 3,500 volunteers in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., collected 162 tons of trash from the Potomac River watershed in just three hours.
To put that figure in perspective: One hundred and sixty-two tons is roughly the weight of 30 school buses. If the trash were lined end to end, it would stretch over three miles (five kilometers).
The volunteers were participating in the 16th Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, a yearly effort hosted by the Alice Ferguson Foundation that seeks to stem the tide of Potomac trash.
Organizers say the cleanup's success comes with mixed emotions.
"For an event like this, you measure your success based on how much trash you get out of the river, how many volunteers you can engage," said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Accokeek, Maryland-based nonprofit. "But at the same time, it's bittersweet that we can actually, in three hours, pull out so much trash."
Many conservation organizations, including the Alice Ferguson Foundation, point out that water pollution is a problem not confined to a single river or stream but the product of pollution throughout a watershedthe region that feeds into a river, including its tributaries.
The Potomac River watershed encompasses an area of 14,679 square miles (38,018 square kilometers) across West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. With its source in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, the waterway ends in the Chesapeake Bay. The river is the bay's second largest tributary.
Bowen notes that much of the trash that volunteers collect during the annual Potomac cleanup may not have been originally dropped into the river. Rather, the trash typically reaches the river's shores via storm-drain runoff from urban and suburban areas. Raising awareness in communities within the watershed (population: 5.2 million), therefore, is an important part of the Alice Ferguson Foundation's educational outreach efforts.
"We like to work with communities that are connected to the river through storm drains and through their flow systems," Bowen said. "All of us are connected to the river, even if we're not directly close to [it]."
"A foam cup is such a minor thing in our lives that people don't consider it," said Curtis Dalpra, communications manager for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. The commission, based in Rockville, Maryland, was established by the United States Congress to address water quality and resource issues affecting the Potomac.
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