Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
But will all residents reap the same benefits?
Last month, D.C. Water, Washington’s main water utility, announced a grand plan: Instead of creating massive tunnels to catch sewage overflow beneath the city’s Potomac River and Rock Creek, they’ll install green infrastructure. Essentially, this means making impermeable surfaces naturally absorptive, catching stormwater where it falls instead of directing it into pipes.
Columbia Heights, Takoma, Petworth and other neighborhoods surrounding the Rock Creek watershed will get rain gardens, bioswales (small planted areas installed just below grade), porous pavement, and green roofs designed to capture and clean runoff, totally replacing original planned tunnels. At the Potomac site, near Georgetown, there will still be a tunnel. But gravity, rather than an energy-intensive pumping station, will passively transfer the contents to the city’s Blue Plains wastewater-treatment plant. That stretch will also get some new green infrastructure.
Green infrastructure’s ability to absorb water where it falls has been proven to be effective, and to have a number of “co-benefits.” After all, a lot of what we’re talking about are trees, plants, and soil. Installing green infrastructure in strategic spots creates additional green space for the neighborhoods. That also means a reduced heat-island effect, improved air quality and health outcomes, more wildlife habitats, job creation, and increased property values. It’s exciting news for the District, which will join New York City, Philadelphia, and a handful of other U.S. cities embarking on major green infrastructure projects.
But what about the Anacostia River? This less-famous river has, in particular, borne the brunt of environmental abuse over the years—though all of the District’s waterbodies have been in infamously terrible shape since the mid-19th-century. At that time, the Washington Canal was D.C.’s dumping ground for waste. Fetid, disease-ridden sewage washed from the waterway, which connected the Anacostia and Potomac rivers to the Capitol via a center-city route, onto the marshy flats near the White House and flooded the National Mall during storms.
The canal was a health hazard, engineers realized, especially as the population surged in the post-Civil War years. But there was a solution: Combined sewers, one of the hottest infrastructure trends of the day. Wastewater and surface runoff were collected, transferred, and discharged together in a single pipe, below-ground. D.C.’s Board of Engineers dredged the Canal and built 80 miles of these combined marvels.
That was only the beginning of the District’s water woes. On very rainy days, the combined sewer system overflowed into the Potomac and Anacostia—by design. It does the same thing today, and that’s a big reason that the Anacostia has been considered one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, despite flowing within spitting distance from the Capitol. Along the Anacostia’s 8 miles, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) occur in 17 different places. The neighborhoods that flank the river are historically some of the poorest in the district, a fact that has contributed to the city’s neglect.
“Of the three billion gallons of overflow that we get in a calendar year, for any of the three rivers, two of the three billion goes to the Anacostia,” says George Hawkins, CEO and General Manager of D.C. Water. And as the population surrounding the watershed has climbed, so has pollution entering into it.
In 2005, D.C. Water signed a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, and the city government to support the Clean Rivers Project, a $2.6 billion initiative aimed at eliminating pollution from the city’s waterways. It is the largest public works project the city has seen since the Metro. Originally, the plan involved building massive underground tunnels, designed to capture CSOs beneath the Anacostia, Potomac, and part of Rock Creek. The Anacostia tunnel is well underway, with a tunnel-boring machine named Lady Bird munching away a little over 100 feet of earth every day. When the project is complete, in 2022, the tunnel is expected to remove about 98 percent of the river’s pollution—clean enough, possibly, to swim in.
But do plans for green infrastructure along the other waterways again overshadow the long-neglected Anacostia? Hawkins points out that D.C. Water has spent millions piloting green infrastructure projects in neighborhoods surrounding the Anacostia watershed. And with development popping up all over the Anacostia area, stormwater regulations mean there’ll be even more green amenities on new properties.
But longtime residents of Anacostia area won’t get quite the same added benefits of green development as in Takoma and Georgetown, where income levels are historically much higher. Hawkins says he hopes that the city will focus more greening efforts in the Anacostia area, to make up for what D.C. Water won’t be doing there. Yes, years from now, the river will be clean, an amazing and long unimaginable future. But as the co-benefits of green infrastructure go to show, a clean river is just the beginning of truly expansive environmental justice.