Spending the money to clean up water pollution: Part 1: A long-running part of the DC region’s history

This is part 1 of a two-part post discussing DC Water’s Clean Rivers Fee and water pollution charges in general. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

Recent controversy about DC Water’s Clean Rivers Fee (Washington Post opinion piece, News 4 I-team investigation) had me thinking about what a long, hard battle it’s been to clean up water pollution, and how the infrastructure fixes needed to do it are often very expensive. I did a little research in the Washington Post historic archives and learned how truly long this battle has been–cleaning up our rivers is a project that has now spanned 120 years or more, and it’s a microcosm of our nation’s efforts to grow and modernize our infrastructure as well as cleanup pollution. If you, too, are a D.C. Public Library card holder, you can join me yourself, free of charge. For anyone else, I’ve saved a few of my favorite clips to share with you:

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1896
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The articles tell a story of water pollution dangers, successes, and reversals over time. There are quick fixes, slow fixes, cheap fixes, and expensive fixes. There are states talking with one another and states suing one another. There was the big stinky problem–sewer discharges into the Anacostia and Rock Creek–and the REALLY BIG stinky problem–sewer discharges into the lower Potomac. These problems were so dangerous that they led to thousands of deaths from typhoid and other bacterial disease, and to the nation’s capital being better known for its “miasmas” than for the “sparkling rivers” for which the site was originally chosen. Over time those stinky problems were mostly fixed, first with rudimentary sewers, then with better sewers, then by separating waste sewers from storm sewers in the suburbs, then by connecting sewer networks together, and finally by building (and then upgrading) state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants, particularly DC’s Blue Plains.

All told, cleaning up the disgusting sewer problem in the Potomac took almost 100 years of expensive, laborious, slow progress. The lower Potomac today is healthy enough to support a thriving recreation scene and plenty of large fish.

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1978
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But the rivers have long had more problems than just the most obvious, stinky ones. Beginning in the 1950s, articles began mentioning silt, then trash, then pesticides and PCBs. Carcinogens found in fish resulted in a quick turnaround from articles in the Sports section touting the fun that anglers could have catching bass, to fish consumption warnings. Starting in 1948, at the height of the District’s population boom, come warnings that unchecked growth was overwhelming the water infrastructure. And in 1983, an ominous warning sounds: “District Sewer System Called Health Threat: Aging D.C. Sewer System Called ‘Serious’ Threat To Health in New Study.” The sewers, state-of-the-art 100 years ago, were now leaking, overwhelmed by rust and decay and by the pressure of an ever-increasing regional population.

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1955
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In 1989 comes the first article about a new kind of pollution: “poison runoff” resulting from rain washing nasty contaminants off pavement and into the streams. In 1991, stormwater pollution was added to the federal Clean Water Act as a pollutant source that required a permit from the EPA. Cities and counties in the region began puzzling out how to fix, and pay for, this kind of insidious pollution that comes from every kind of human land use. They knew, back in the early 1990s, that it would be expensive, and they knew that nonetheless we would need to do it. So, leading the way for the entire country, the DC region set to work to clean up stormwater pollution.

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1989
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With civic commitment and engineering ingenuity, and lots of federal, state, local, and utility dollars, we have fixed many water problems over the last 120 years. But no problem stays fixed–that’s another thing that the articles make clear. Every decade, there was a promise to “finally” or “completely” clean up contaminated rivers and streams. Every decade, the commitment needed to be made anew, always with the same goal in mind. And some rivers got fixed more than others–some problems are harder. The Anacostia River’s cleanup has lagged far, far behind the Potomac’s.

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1983
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And today? The Anacostia in particular continues to need help. When it rains, the sewer pipes that bring sewage from Maryland, Virginia, and DC to Blue Plains overflow into the rivers and streams of the District. The Anacostia is particularly hard-hit. To fix it, DC Water is building a series of huge tunnels to hold the overflow and move it slowly to Blue Plains, keeping it out of the streams. When it’s done, the stinky problems will finally (hopefully!) be a thing of the past.

We need to keep up that long history of commitment today in order to build the tunnels, while making sure that the burden to pay for pollution cleanup is carried by those most responsible for it and who can most afford it. More on that next week in Part 2 of this post. 


Read ANS’ past blog posts on stormwater fees:
Montgomery’s Water Quality Protection Charge and Fund: Crucial to All Who Need Clean Water
Funding Clean Water: A Tale of Two Counties
How Are Maryland Counties Going to Pay to Fix Stormwater Pollution?
Paying to Fix Stormwater Pollution in Prince George’s County

About Eliza Cava

Eliza Cava is the ANS Director of Conservation, where she leads our MD & DC policy, advocacy, and conservation outreach work, supervises our citizen science programs and VA advocacy work, and supports Woodend restoration as a demonstration landscape for the region.

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