It’s no secret that the Anacostia River is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country. But some Washington, D.C., residents may be surprised to learn 1) why the river is so polluted and 2) that there is an extensive project under way to solve the problem.
The details: 1) an antiquated sewer system dumps an annual average of about 2.5 billion gallons of raw sewage into area waters, mostly the Anacostia; and 2) a $2 billion, 20-year plan by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority is in place to reduce those overflows by 98 percent.
The heart of the Anacostia’s pollution problem is its combined sewer system. One-third of D.C., including downtown and Capitol Hill, uses a combined system where home and business sewage flows into the same pipes as storm water. Those combined pipes head to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in the far corner of Southwest D.C.
But in severe storms, rather than have the pipes back up and cause flooding, the system is designed to send “combined sewer overflows” into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek.
Steven Reynolds, communications and membership manager for the Anacostia Watershed Society, a nonprofit that does advocacy and leads cleaning projects on the river, puts the problem this way: “Every time a Senator or a Member of Congress flushes a toilet on the Hill, it goes into the Anacostia.”
That’s actually true only for periods of rainfall, though according to the AWS it only requires a half-inch for a CSO. WASA estimates that during an average year nearly 1.5 billion gallons of untreated sewage go into the river through 75 CSOs. There are 15 outfall locations that usher the untreated flow into the Anacostia.
The resulting pollution has led D.C. to prohibit swimming in the Anacostia — as well as the Potomac and Rock Creek.
But the Anacostia’s problem is the most severe because of its small size and stagnant water. Fecal pollution and dead fish are common.
According to the AWS, about two-thirds of the river’s brown bullhead catfish, an environmental indicator species in the Anacostia, have tumors.
“When it rains in the watershed you always have the potential for fish die-off,” Reynolds said.
The hallmark of WASA’s 20-year, long-term control plan is a deep tunnel storage system. About $800 million will go to two tunnels about as wide as Metro tunnels that will collect flow from the combined sewer system during rainfall.
Once the rest of the system’s sewage has made it to Blue Plains — the world’s largest water treatment plant, it receives all of D.C.’s wastewater — and the facility has regained its capacity, the tunnels will send their flow to the plant for treatment.
WASA believes the plan will reduce pollution in the Anacostia by 98 percent.
Currently, a $140 million short-term plan is being implemented with the goal of a 40 percent reduction by 2008. That plan consists of pumping station repairs and other small projects, and WASA says pollution already has decreased by 30 percent.
The major challenge facing the long-term plan is funding. The cost will be about evenly split by WASA ratepayers and the federal government, according to Johnnie Hemphill, WASA’s chief of staff.
Rates are scheduled to increase by 5 percent to 7 percent over the next 15 years. WASA estimates that an average customer’s annual bill will increase 113 percent, from $290 to $617, over that span.
As for the D.C. government’s lack of funding, Hemphill said, “The problem is that feepayers are also taxpayers, so to the extent the D.C. government would offer funds, they’d essentially be taking them from the same source.”
That means WASA is relying on the federal government to pick up the rest of the tab. Hemphill said more than $100 million has been appropriated since 2001. But with the project just beginning, funding will have to increase.
“We’re in very good shape today in terms of Congress’ willingness and the administration’s willingness to fund the program,” Hemphill said. “But in the next five to six years, as funding for the deep tunnel program comes, expenditures are going to rise.
“We’ve begun to discuss with the administration and the Office of Management and Budget that they move to the sorts of support we got early on, and that’s because the costs are going to rise dramatically,” he added. “It needs to increase if we’re to have anything like a 50 percent federal match over time.”
But Hemphill said Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has been supportive of the project, as have the relevant Appropriations subcommittee chairmen in the House and Senate, and WASA expects that support to continue.
This year’s Water Resources Development Act also contains authorization for $55 million for the river. The act was submitted to President Bush for his signature this week.
Officials including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) signaled their support for cleanup efforts last week by leading a boat tour of the Anacostia.
In the meantime, nonprofits such as the AWS, the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership and the Alice Ferguson Foundation are trying to keep the Anacostia as clean as possible and lay the groundwork for its future.
The AWS says it engaged more than 5,000 volunteers last year, removed 136 tons of trash from the Anacostia and led education programs for nearly 1,500 students.
Is it somewhat deflating to know that until the WASA plan is completed, some of that work will be undone during the next storm?
“It is discouraging to know the pollution is going to be returned,” the AWS’ Reynolds said, “but it’s also encouraging to see how much a change there has been in the trash level since our founding in 1989. We’re not picking up the same number of tires that we once were.”