Our View: The power of water

Our View: The power of water
The former industrial site on Oronoco Bay which flows into the Potomac River.

With the advent of summer this week, more Alexandrians will be taking to the water for fun and relief from the heat.

People of all ages will motor, sail, paddle and swim in the Potomac River or picnic beside it. They will hike and bike along streams like Taylor Run and Strawberry Run. They will head to public or private pools and splash parks.

Water fun also leads to thoughts of water safety, and there are two sobering but different examples in this week’s Alexandria Times of how precarious this precious commodity can be.

Our briefing page contains the story of a 52-year-old man who was found dead Monday in the Alexandria portion of the Four Mile Run stream, with drowning as the suspected cause of death. And our front page story, “Potomac Riverkeepers propose settlement,” details the latest chapter of our city’s long history of polluting the Potomac River.

Water, vital to our existence and a primary source of our enjoyment, can also kill if we are not vigilant.

The most basic self-protection against water’s potential lethality is, perhaps counterintuitively, to get in it. Everyone should learn to swim at the earliest opportunity, and people should practice swimming periodically throughout their lives, even if they do not regularly swim for enjoyment or exercise.

Possessing confidence in even the most basic swimming skills could prevent a person from panicking if they wind up in the deep end of a swimming pool, in a stream moving more swiftly than expected or in an ocean riptide pulling them under the sea.

It’s also vital to maintain a healthy respect for water’s power, even if one possesses strong swimming ability. Particularly in this era of tropical-style rainfall and flash floods, it’s crucial to remember that water measured in inches rather than feet can knock a person down and carry them away if it’s flowing fast enough. We should understand and admit our own limits and also not mix drugs or excessive use of alcohol with water recreation.

What do we do, though, when water harms us because we’ve harmed it?

This is the gist of the efforts by the Potomac Riverkeepers Network to accelerate the City of Alexandria’s timeline to clean up industrial toxins from the Oronoco Bay site that was home to several commercial ventures during our city’s history.

The reduction of pollution in both air and water is one of this country’s greatest achievements during the last 50 years. Lake Erie no longer catches on fire. The air in Los Angeles is generally breathable. And yet, the water in the Potomac River remains unsafe, with chemicals from a bygone era remaining like discarded vacation souvenirs. Except these chemicals don’t clutter, but instead can kill.

We hope the city finds common ground with PRKN and completes the remediation of the Oronoco Bay site as soon as possible. This is obviously not the only current issue where people of today are grappling with the repercussions of their forebears’ actions, but it’s one of the most urgent.

As we ponder the power of water, perhaps it’s fitting that in her inaugural Alexandria Times column, city Poet Laureate Zeina Azzam encourages us to write our own poems about the Potomac River and to “explore its history or your relationship to the river today, and what this means to you.”