Once deemed a national disgrace by President Lyndon Johnson, the Potomac River is showing signs of improvement after decades of trying to decontaminate the murky waters.

A study released by the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that despite the Potomac’s still unsightly appearance, the water quality has improved enough for native submerged aquatic vegetation to increase tenfold between 1990, when the USGS started taking measurements, and 2007. The USGS also found that the abundance of exotic species has declined since restoration efforts began and more native species have been able to repopulate. Native SAV species now cover 3,081 acres of the bottom of the Potomac in the 50-mile stretch of the river that was included in the study.

Nancy Rybicki, a scientist and a co-author of the study released by the USGS, said that the conditions now are better than they have been for decades.

“These conditions are actually better than they were in the 1950s,” Rybicki said to The Washington Post. “The portion of the Potomac that we’re talking about was completely devoid of vegetation in the 1950s.”

The USGS attributes the improvement to the reduction of nitrogenous waste being dumped into the Potomac. They found a negative correlation between the levels of nitrogen present in the river and the abundance of SAV. As the average nitrogen-levels in the river decreased by nearly 50 percent during the 18-year study, the USGS saw an increase in the area of riverbed covered by underwater grass.

Reducing the concentration of nitrogen entering the Potomac has not been an easy process. Regulations passed by the federal government in the last 10 years have allowed the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is the largest of its kind in the United States, to add $1 billion to its operations, according to The Washington Post.

With the new funding, the plant can now allow nitrogen-eating bacteria to feast upon the sewage before it enters the Potomac. This improves the water quality because not as much algae can grow when there is less nitrogen in the river, and if there is less algae more sunlight can reach the bottom of the river and fuel the growth of underwater grasses.

Despite the recent improvements, many Georgetown students, including Sabra Simmonds (COL ’12), do not consider the Potomac their best option for a refreshing swim on a hot summer day.

“The last time I looked at the Potomac, it was basically a stagnant pile of garbage. I was not here this past year, but if anything, I would say it has gotten worse in the past three years. Hopefully it will improve soon, and it seems like they have been making progress in other areas,” Simmonds said.

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