Fish Don’t Like DC’s Water

Andy Dehart, director of biological programs at the National Aquarium in Washington, DC, noted that he was brought down from the aquarium’s sister institution in Baltimore to take the “oldest aquarium in the United States and make it not look like the oldest aquarium in the United States.”

NOW YOU SEE IT Invertebrate animals, like this nautilus, could not be kept alive by the National Aquarium until this watery zoo recently cleaned up the water it was getting from Washington, DC. National Aquarium

Four years and more than $1.5 million later, the small facility in the basement of the Commerce Department headquarters resembles a little gem. But sprucing up the aquarium took more than burnishing the displays and acquiring some additional fish, Dehart observes.

The first thing his team needed to do, he recalled, was “fix the water quality.”

Washington, DC’s tap water “is abominable,” he says. “It will not sustain life.” At least not many piscine lives.

The chloramine disinfectant used to treat DC’s drinking water “is hard to get rid of and very dangerous for fish especially invertebrates.” That’s why four years ago, aquarium visitors wouldn’t have seen a single aquatic invertebrate; they could not tolerate the water, he says.

The building’s original filtration systems, a half century old, needed upgrading too. They now include carbon and resins.

“Five years ago,” Dehart says, “we were able to sustain maybe three fish in a 900 gallon aquarium. Now we’ve got 25 fish plus a number of invertebrates.”

When asked if DC’s water was fit for human consumption, Dehart coyly ducked the question and volunteered that he preferred bottled water.

I’m happy for the fish but find myself wondering if there should be a lesson here for the rest of us. I guess I’ll continue to fill that mug for my tea from the office water cooler. (Of course, I don’t know what’s in that water but it likely won’t include fish-sickening chloramine.)

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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