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Home​NewsThe Sewer Overflows to The Anacostia are No More! 

The Sewer Overflows to The Anacostia are No More! 

The Anacostia River is on the mend. Water quality is steadily improving, habitat is recovering, wildlife is returning, and the goal of a swimmable, fishable river is within reach, though perhaps not by the deadline we have come to expect.

“The longstanding goal for the Anacostia River has been swimmable and fishable by 2025,” Chris Williams, the President and CEO of the Anacostia Watershed Society, told me recently. “It looks like we’re going to meet the goal only partially, but we are making great progress and success is within reach.”

Chris is a longtime resident of the DC region and the Anacostia watershed who took the reins of AWS in 2021. He brought with him a depth of experience doing river conservation work nationally and internationally at American Rivers and World Wildlife Fund, bringing a new point of view to the work of restoring our neighborhood rivers and streams. “All river conservation work is local, whether you are in Africa, Asia, or the District of Columbia,” says Williams, “but I’d hoped I could bring some big picture perspective with me as I dove (figuratively and literally) into my local watershed.”

Sewer Overflows

A few years ago parts of DC got regular overflows from the DC’s combined sewers which were installed a century or so ago when it was thought to be no problem to connect the sewer overflows to the river. This was done in that time for sewers throughout the world, but as DC installed more buildings and paving, overflows occurred more and more, and separate sewers were installed outside of center city. As urban centers grew and pavement moved the water faster and further, the combined sewers were often overwhelmed.

The choice became to have the water back up and fill the basements of houses in a storm, or install valves to open up the sewers to discharge the raw sewage into the rivers and streams of the city. Thus the water bodies in all our old urban areas carried sewage to bigger rivers where it would hopefully spread out and be absorbed.

Massive Storage Tunnels

Now, Our River, the Anacostia, is celebrating. A new system of tunnels surrounding the older parts of the City, where combined sewage and street sewer runoff remain, now feeds underground tunnels the size of subway tunnels. They can store overflow  until the treatment plant on the Potomac in Anacostia across from National Airport can handle it.

This tunnel system that has been designed and completed for the Anacostia is not only the most advanced and effective in our metropolitan area, it promises results that may well be the best in the nation. So for the first time this year we should begin to see an Anacostia River that is cleaner and clearer. How much cleaner and clearer is hard to tell because the combined sewage cleanup is only one part of the variety of actions needed to meet our goals for the Anacostia as a place to swim, to catch fish to eat and to enjoy as a worthy addition to neighborhoods along both sides and up and down the stream.

So let us rejoice in the progress we have made and learn how much it needs to be augmented by other actions that we need to take. There is much more we can do and must do to restore our streams and the branches of the Anacostia. But with the heavy load from the combined sewers now under control, what remains is more doable and less costly if we all get behind it and keep the pressure on.

Other Sources of Pollution

One problem is that, with all the attention given to the combined sewer overloads and what to do about them, it has been difficult to get an idea of the other sources of pollution, their relative importance and how costly it would be to clean them up.  But we must follow up on these other sources if we want the River and its tributaries to be safe.

Lower Beaverdam Creek runs along Route 50 in Maryland, from the Beltway to the Anacostia, picking up industrial pollutants of all kinds from abandoned, buried, and new industries.

There is only limited understanding of how much sewage has accumulated in the water and the soil at the bottom and the shorelines of the streams and rivers.  Should this be allowed to clear up on its own now, or are there places where it needs to be removed?

While figuring this out, we also need to check for pollutants that get in the water or on the shoreline from sources other than sewers—pipes from nearby factories (even those no longer in use), runoff from development, etc.

Another area to keep in mind are shallows that are used by canoes and other small vessels. There are often proposals to deepen these shallows, but they may well be exactly where the stream slows and drops what it is carrying, which may be toxics that would be stirred up by the deepening. It is hard to keep the toxics from polluting the river. We need to avoid creating new problems while solving old ones.

One of few remaining hot spots for pollution entering the Anacostia from its streams is at the boundary between Maryland and DC. There are two streams there with major problems yet to be addressed, Lower Beaverdam Creek in Maryland and Hickey Run in the District.

Beaverdam runs along Route 50 in from the Beltway, and picks up a large amount of toxics passing over old industrial sites, many of which have new and cleaner buildings, but have kept the toxic soils and water below or along side.

Hickey Run enters the Arboretum under New York Avenue and is filled with toxics of all kinds from neighborhoods and industries in DC to the north. Its cleanup has been delayed by resistance from homeowners and businesses. Not only that, one effort by the city to capture and treat the Hickey Run pollution has failed with an ineffective treatment attempt in the Arboretum just south of where the water passes under New York Avenue.

The final story is in the Arboretum, which worked hard with the DC Government to clean up Springhouse Run. It entered the Arboretum under New York Avenue fairly clean and was rejoined to a pond and discharged to a field and stream below it. It runs clean and clear, and has been such a welcome to all manner of birds, beavers, and other critters that it creates a very special natural area surrounded by fields and forests. The only problem is that it must get to the Anacostia by joining the dirty Hickey Run. So we are back to the problem of pollution in old Hickey Run.   Meanwhile, don’t miss Springhouse Run and what can be the future life and look of the Anacostia.

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