There’s algae in the Capitol Reflecting Pool (but things could be worse)

‘Excessive heat’ has led to ‘more algae than usual,’ AOC spox says

Earlier this year, the Capitol Reflecting Pool welcomed ducklings, like it does every spring. How is it doing right about now?  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Earlier this year, the Capitol Reflecting Pool welcomed ducklings, like it does every spring. How is it doing right about now? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 29, 2020 at 6:30am

This is a story about algae.

Last week an astute user on the social platform Nextdoor (let’s call him Simon, since that is his name) noticed that the Capitol Reflecting Pool was looking a tad bit scummier than usual.

“It is now really stinky and seems full of nasty, slimy debris or algae of some sort (please no snarky political comments regarding where it might have come from!)” he wrote, with the caveat that he knew “nothing” about the topic.

Like Simon, we don’t know much about algae. Unlike Simon, we have no problem with snarky political comments and would never dream of passing up the chance to make a joke involving slime.

So off we went to the Capitol, to check out this filthy problem for ourselves.

Imagine our dismay when we peered into the water and saw … nothing much. Was there an extra suggestion of growth? Sure. Could the stank have been less stanky? Yes. But it didn’t seem to be stopping anyone from hanging out nearby, including ducks and at least a few humans.

Does this look like the face of an especially scummy pool? As of last week, it didn’t seem that bad to us. (Kathryn Lyons/CQ Roll Call)

Still, we wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery, even if we didn’t want to plunge our hands down to the bottom of the pool itself — which is not particularly deep, for the record, and covers six acres on the eastern edge of the National Mall.

That’s why we reached out to the Architect of the Capitol’s Laura Condeluci to ask how the state of the water compared to previous years.

“Yes, there is more algae than usual right now due to the excessive heat,” she wrote back.

Temps have climbed into the high nineties in Washington in recent weeks, but if you think the ducks are in hot water, they’ve had it worse.

Ducklings have died, they’ve gotten stuck on rooftops and members of Congress have criticized the ramps that help them waddle in and out of the pool.

While the AOC has been taking care of the Reflecting Pool for nearly a decade (it was transferred from the National Park Service), there’s an age-old excuse for some of its problems.

“Some systems are nearly 90 years old,” says Condeluci of the irrigation network the staff oversees. “The upgrades that we’re working to complete by the end of summer will provide a more efficient manner to control water supply to the pool.”

If you look back through the historical record, you can get a sense of summers past. Not so long ago, outbreaks of avian botulism, a relatively common disease, wiped out whole families of ducks. And if you zoom out to consider other bodies of water along the National Mall, the picture only gets grimmer. Algae exploded in the nearby Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool just weeks after an expensive renovation was completed in 2012. (The whole thing had to be drained.)

These are the pool-related facts that keep us up at night. 

When we first saw that post about algae show up on Nextdoor last week, we thought we were seeing another sign of the 2020 end times, written in slime and stink. Instead, we came to a different conclusion: It could be worse. It already has been.