Why You Should Give A Hoot About D.C. Stormwater

We're talking poop water, people.

Capital Campus | Addie Cox | February 24, 2016

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Stormwater. No, I don’t mean a dope new X-Men character. What we’re talking about is the water runoff from any precipitation event or from the melting of frozen precipitation. For the layman – it’s when the watery stuff goes into the street places and mixes up with the ickies.

The last week or two has brought melting, snow, and rain to the District. Besides leaving me ferhoodled as to wtf to wear outside, this bizarre weather has led to a whole lot of H2O running through D.C.’s streets.

So, I wondered to myself, where does all this water end up? Little did I know what rabbit hole of information I was about to fall into.

Already, 13 percent of rivers, 18 percent of lakes, and 32 percent of estuaries in the United States are unsafe for swimming and fishing due to this sort of stormwater runoff. How does this happen? It’s actually so obvious, we’re all kind of idiots for not thinking it before.

Romantic rain or pollution pollution?

When precipitation happens in an urban area, the water has to go somewhere. As it does, that water picks up all the ickies we leave in the streets. And oh boy, are there a lot of ickies.

Fertilizer, car parts, paint, construction sites, minerals, pesticides, petroleum, metals. You name it. It’s probably in there. When this water isn’t treated and enters an environment we can’t control (Anacostia), those chemicals and toxins can alter the environment of the plants and animals from here to the Atlantic Ocean.

This year, the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment put forth a proposal called the Stormwater Retention Credit Trading Program. The program puts a credit on the stormwater release of properties. The more credits you buy, the more stormwater your property can release onto the $treetz. The goal is to incentive more properties to capture rainwater at the source, before it hits the ground and picks up pollutants. 

But there’s a little problem with this plan and it goes all the way back to the 1870s. Someone finally decided it was high time the Capitol figured out where its shit and rain ought to go. The brilliant plan the Board of Public Works came up with is described by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority as “poorly planned, structurally unsound, and hydraulically inadequate.” Really just a great way to describe America in the 1800s in general.

The 1870 Combined Sewer System

The 1870 plan involved a one-pipe system throughout the city. It picked up all sewage and stormwater waste and dumped it in the marshes of the Anacostia and Potomac. In the 1890s, a board appointed by just-another-white-president Benjamin Harrison was tasked with upgrading the system. They recommended keeping the old combined sewer system (the one pipe deal) and having all new construction operate with separate sanitary and sewer systems (so two pipes).

The 1890 Separated Sewer Design

That is the system we operate on today. And in many ways, it works well. When the city has average rainfall, the combined sewer system treats all its water at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant before it gets to the rivers.

But there are two problems. The first is that while the combined sewer system (the old 1870 one) sends all its water to treatment, it only makes up a third of the water infrastructure in the city. The bigger and newer separated sanitary and sewer systems sends only its sewer water to Blue Plains for treatment, meaning all the stormwater runoff goes untreated into the environment.

The second problem is that when there is a period of high rainfall, lots of snowmelt, etc., the combined sewer system gets overwhelmed and can’t send all of its water to Blue Plains. Where does it go? You guessed it. The friggin’ river. 

“Oh, bother” Pooh muttered to himself as he watched the pollutants wash into the Potomac.

So while the Stormwater Retention Credit Trading Program is good in theory, and will hopefully generate better practices by private properties, it doesn’t get at the root of the problem. And like the Metro, it’s a problem that has to do with the very foundation of D.C.’s infrastructure. Which brings me to my final conclusion.

D.C. needs to pull a Chipotle. When you have messed up so many times, you get your team together and you make sure everything is back on track and everyone is on the same page about it. Even if that means depriving a hungry college girl her burrito bowl. If D.C. wants to have a shot at becoming infra-structurally strong and innovative, it needs to close up shop, find a money tree, and fix its damn problems. (I’m looking at you, Metro).