Rising precipitation rates resulting from climate change have exacerbated a decades-old problem in Washington, D.C.: sewage runoff making its way into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Heavy rains compromise the District’s already burdened sewage system, which diverts roughly 140 million gallons of untreated human waste into the Potomac River and its tributaries each year. As a result, the waterway received a “B-” rating in river health from the Potomac Conservancy. The Anacostia River, which begins in the Maryland suburbs and merges with the Potomac River, faces a similar problem, as 500 million gallons of raw sewage enter the waterway annually.
As Georgetown University students and residents of D.C., we must be conscious of pollution in the District’s waterways and advocate for the modification of the city’s outdated sewage systems and the strengthening of laws to protect our rivers.
D.C.’s sewage system — one of the oldest in the United States, dating back to the 1880s — discharges both human sewage and stormwater runoff. This system uses the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant as the discharge point for sewage and rain runoff because of its far distance from the city. There are 47 sewer outfalls along the banks of the Anacostia, Potomac and Rock Creek rivers. The outfalls on the Anacostia, at one point, were excreting raw sewage into the river over 80 times per year, precipitating much of the pollution still afflicting D.C. waterways.
It has become clear that the 200-year-old sewage system is no longer sufficient to serve the city’s growing population amid a climate crisis that has led to higher rainfall rates.
Following a lawsuit by the Anacostia Watershed Society, the city of D.C. was required to remedy the sewage problem through a court-mandated rehabilitation project. The lawsuit resulted in a consent decree, which binds the District to clean the river under the oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
This undertaking, called the Clean Rivers Project, is one of the city’s most expensive infrastructure projects since the construction of the Metro. The system is set to include 18 miles of newly built tunnels to manage runoff and sewage. The $2.7 billion project is primarily funded by residents through the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC), which some argue has driven low-income tenants out of the city. While the speed with which the current plan proposes to clean D.C.’s waterways is of utmost importance, the establishment of a relief program to unburden low-income residents is equally important.
Given this understandable critique of the project’s cost, relief funds have been established to mitigate fees from low-income residents, including a CRIAC Residential Relief Program, which offers a monthly discount of up to $80 off water bills.
Despite the need to update its sewage and drainage system, DC Water has tried to shift the project’s timeline and reduce the scope of the proposed tunnel system. This change was proposed under the Trump administration, which was known for its lax approach to pollution and its perpetrators. For example, Trump rolled back regulations that limited the disposal of toxic metals derived from oil and coal-fired power plants.
The carelessness with which the Trump administration handled the pollution of waterways left the District at a crossroads in deciding whether the city should commit to the Clean Rivers Project’s intended construction timeline.
For the time being, DC Water appears to be committed to its original plan, which demands the completion of a two-mile sewer tunnel under the Potomac River by 2025, a deadline imposed by city lawmakers.
Given the backlash from residents, however, the continuation of the Clean Rivers Project remains contested, and its future is uncertain. At a Council of the District of Columbia hearing in May 2018, residents argued that the high water bills associated with the CRIAC were accelerating gentrification. While a commitment to the original scope and timeline of the project remains crucial, mitigating the financial burden of the Clean Rivers Project on low-income residents ensures equitable access to clean and safe waterways.
Although the Biden administration and the EPA have worked to reverse Trump-era policies, the pending Supreme Court case regarding the scope of the EPA’s powers could create significant barriers to the protection of healthy and clean waterways.
Georgetown students must be steadfast in their support of the Clean Rivers Project and regulations that protect waterways. Despite notable progress, improving the health of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers is still challenging. As such, it is all the more necessary that we advocate for the project, which would reshape D.C.’s antiquated sewage system.
Students must be conscious of the necessity of the Clean Rivers Project and advocate for relief funds that diminish the financial burden of the updated system on low-income residents. The District’s waterways depend on it.
Grace Rivers is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. Weeding Out Injustice is published every third Friday.
Leave a Reply