Watching the River Flow

Potomac Watershed

10 things you should know about "the Nation's River"

The Potomac Gorge

Take a virtual tour of the Potomac Gorge with Stephanie Flack.


Understanding E-Flows

What are "environmental flows" and how do they support healthy rivers?


The Potomac Gorge, the 15-mile corridor of the Potomac River from Great Falls down to Georgetown, is one of the most biologically rich areas of the eastern United States. spoke with The Nature Conservancy’s Stephanie Flack, project director for the Potomac River, to learn just how important this river is to people and wildlife in the Washington metro region.  Stephanie is featured in the 2012 documentary Potomac: The River Runs Through Us.  The film follows the flow of the Potomac water from its origin, into our homes and businesses, and back into the river.

Why is the Potomac Gorge such a biologically rich area?

Stephanie Flack:

The Potomac Gorge is a crossroads — we have species from the north, south, east and west all coming together in a 15-mile river corridor. There is a tremendous amount of natural diversity, as well as many rare species and plant communities, packed together in a small area. The Gorge contains an assortment of habitats, including scoured bedrock terraces, mature upland woods, rich floodplain forests, streams and wetlands.

How does the Potomac contribute to the quality of life for residents in the region?

Stephanie Flack:

The Potomac River is the primary source of drinking water for more than 4 million people in the Washington, DC metro region. This is the water that Members of Congress use to brew their coffee, and President Obama uses to wash his hands. The river also assimilates our wastewater, which is a pretty important service in such a heavily populated region.

The river is also an important place for our quality of life as a recreational retreat. The Potomac Gorge provides a easy refuge and oasis for a lot of urban dwellers to get outside and reconnect with nature.

On the flip side, this also means that there are millions of people in the region that affect the health of the river on a day-to-day basis. We all need to make choices to enable us to live more in concert with the land and water that we depend upon.

What is The Nature Conservancy is doing to help protect the Potomac River?

Stephanie Flack:

The Nature Conservancy has been working in the Potomac Gorge for more than 50 years — almost since our founding. The Conservancy protects lands and waters in the Potomac watershed through land acquisition, by restoring important habitat areas, and by working with partners to identify and to understand how much water the river needs and when those flows are needed to fulfill species’ and ecosystem needs.

Speaking of "flows," can you tell us more about that concept?

Stephanie Flack:

When I think about river ecology, I think about an elaborately choreographed dance. The species have evolved to know the dance, and the flows of the river are the music. There is this interplay between the species and what are naturally variable flows, which are sometimes high and sometimes low. Our job as conservationists is to get to understand what the score is, and how to read the music, in order to protect and restore those flows that are important for species to complete their lifecycle.

Why is the Potomac River so important to you?

Stephanie Flack:

The Potomac watershed is my home. It's where I've lived for 15 years now, where I get my water and where I'm raising my children. It's a place I'm deeply committed to. Being able to live and work in your own "backyard" is a very gratifying thing.

Stephanie Flack is The Nature Conservancy’s project director for the Potomac River. She has been living in the region and working on the Potomac River for over a decade.


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