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Anacostia Tunnels Help Clean Up River

You probably never thought you would read what you are about to. I certainly never thought I would write it:

Beginning in about six years, the cleanest body of water in the DC metropolitan area after a major storm will be the Anacostia River.

How has this come about? It is a remarkable achievement by a combination of active citizen groups, government agencies, courts of law, science, technology and the luck of the draw.

A Little Sewage History

First, a little background: When engineers in the 19th century were designing the first sewer systems in our cities, they decided that the best way to keep the sewage moving in the pipes was to combine it with stormwater draining off streets and buildings. So all the older parts of our cities were given so-called combined sewers. These worked fine as new treatment plants were built to handle the mix. But soon the streets were paved, sidewalks were built and more and more buildings with large roofs were connected to the sewers so that when it rained they became overloaded.

The choice was to let them back up with the combined sewage into streets and homes, or to install overflow valves that discharged the overload into rivers and streams. Obviously, the latter was quickly designated the preferred option, especially since digging up all the streets to put in separate storm and sanitary sewers seemed out of the question. Newer areas and new cities got the separate systems where the stormwater went into rivers and streams and the sewage directly to the treatment plant, but the older cores were left with “combined sewer overflows” or CSOs. As time went on, the overflows became more and more frequent until by the 1980s in DC they averaged once a week. And each overflow could pour millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Anacostia, the Potomac and Rock Creek.

Demanding a Solution

Everything came to a head around here in the 1990’s when environmental groups led by Robert Boone at the Anacostia Watershed Society started threatening litigation if EPA and the City did not figure out a solution. Folks were particularly angry that the Anacostia was bearing an unfair burden of the overflows. This was due to what was probably a combination of two factors – it was the watershed for much of the combined sewer area of the City, which included the commercial area of Anacostia and a triangle of neighborhoods reaching into far northeast and parts of northwest; and it was where the poorer neighborhoods were located.

Citing the latter environmental justice factors in particular, the citizen groups were successful in forcing EPA, the City and the Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) into a court-supervised consent decree that resulted in a Long-Term Control Plan. Under an EPA permit, the Plan was developed from 1998 to 2001, revised after hearings in 2002 and finalized in 2004. It recognized the prohibitive cost of separating the sewers and came up with a plan of deep tunnels, diversion facilities and some sewer replacement with the goal to reduce overflows by over 95 percent by 2025.

Entrance to the CSO Tunnel at Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Stadium. Courtesy: DC Water

The $2.8 billion DC Clean Rivers Project is now in full swing. Eighteen miles of tunnels larger than Metro’s are being built to store millions of gallons of combined sewer discharges over 100 feet underground until it can be fed into the Blue Plains Treatment Plant once the storm has passed. This is a proven technology first used in Chicago over 30 years ago.

The first set of DC tunnels, from the west side of the Anacostia River below RFK Stadium to the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant are complete and went into operation at the end of March. The ceremonial dedication by Mayor Muriel Bowser and open to the public is currently set to take place Wednesday March 28th, after snows delayed the original opening ceremony set for Thursday March 22.

Meanwhile the tunnels to serve the Potomac and Rock Creek were subject to a revision in the Control Plan in 2016, which reduced their capacity somewhat and augmented them with “green infrastructure” (rain gardens, roof gardens, etc.). A lot of this progress is due to George Hawkins, a long-time confirmed environmental leader who recently retired as Director of DCWater, the WASA replacement.

Sewer Overflow Reduction

The Long Term Control Plan now estimates eventual CSO reductions to be 98 percent in the Anacostia and 96 percent in Rock Creek and the Potomac. Originally, the Long-Term Control Plan was to be completed by 2025. Now DCWater and the City will have the Anacostia works in place three years early by 2022 and the work in the Potomac and Rock Creek watersheds by 2030. The opening of the Anacostia tunnel at the end of March will reduce Anacostia CSO’s by an estimated 81 percent; the remaining 17 percent will come from the Northeast Boundary tunnel and related barriers and sewer construction, a project currently underway in the Bloomingdale and Le Droit Park neighborhoods east of Howard University, to be completed by 2022.

By comparison, while here in DC we are achieving 96 to 98% reductions, our friends across the Potomac in Virginia are still trying to decide what to do with their sewer overflow issues. Other cities are tackling the problem of combined sewers, with Saint Louis and Cleveland both spending more than $3 billion. CSO reductions in some other cities are well below what we are planning to achieve: the goal in Philadelphia is 60% and in New York a mere 40%. Baltimore has a major problem with its Patapsco Treatment Plant and is years if not decades behind us.

Another Porblem

But if you are following all these numbers so far, you are asking why I said at the beginning that it will be six years until the Anacostia was the area’s cleanest water body after a storm, while 2022, when all this CSO work is complete, is only four years off.

The answer is that we have another problem in the Anacostia to address. Storms create vast “flashes” of runoff to rivers like the Anacostia,. That runoff can stir up the sediments on the bottom and re-suspend them in the water. Because the River served for so long as the location of industries, including shipbuilding and repair at the Navy Yard, many of these sediments are contaminated with toxics.

The clean-up of these sediments and the control of other toxic discharges is a separate effort that is under the direction of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE), operating under EPA directives related to Superfund and other Federal laws. The City has well underway a process to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the sediments in the water, along the shallows and on nearby contaminated lands. DOEE has been working with a range of landowners, including the National Park Service which owns the land under the water, and plans to release its Plan of Action for cleaning up the areas this year. Currently, the Plan calls for completing actions by 2024. At that point or soon after, the Anacostia should be pretty much swimmable and fishable. And the best place in the area to find clean water to do both, especially after a storm!

Do Your Part

Now, how can you do your part? The most helpful actions as homeowners are to slow down stormwater from roofs and paved areas and try to keep as much of it on your property as you can. One key action is to build rain gardens, sunken plots that absorb the rainwater and are filled with plants that like to be damp, and roof gardens, which do the same.

If you are in the market for plants, the best selection is at the annual Plant Fair held by the Friends of the National Arboretum on the last weekend of April each year. It is a fundraiser, but volunteers have sought out donated plants from nurseries all over the country, and have been able to obtain a wide selection of annuals, perennials, shrubs and even trees at very low cost.

So you can help a worthy cause, purchase unusual plants at reasonable prices and help the Anacostia achieve first place among the rivers of the region! This year’s dates at the Arboretum are Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29 – Saturday morning is for members of the Friends only – but if you sign up there as a member you get in then. Bring the kids – there is also a Plant Zoo filled with kangaroo paws, foxgloves, and such!

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly for the Hill Rag about the Anacostia River. He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River. He is also Board Vice-Chair of the Friends of the National Arboretum.

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