- The Anacostia River received billions of gallons of sewage due to the regular sewer overflows produced by DC’s deteriorating sewage infrastructure.
- Initiated in response to a lawsuit, the Clean Rivers Project seeks to lower overflows and enhance water quality.
- Flood resilience is increased as a result of the tunnel system’s flood mitigation and stormwater management.
- Digging tunnels 100 feet below the city is a remarkable engineering achievement being performed by enormous tunnel-boring equipment.
- The comprehensive tunnel network connects various parts of D.C. and costs $2.7 billion, funded in part by DC Water customers.
- Challenges remain in fully restoring the Anacostia River, including bacterial contamination and toxic chemicals.
- The tunnel project represents significant progress, but comprehensive restoration efforts continue.
A collection of neighborhood environmental organizations started a legal fight approximately 25 years ago to get DC Water to stop allowing the flow of billions of gallons of untreated sewage into the rivers of Washington, D.C.
Massive tunnel network that was formerly underground now serves as evidence of transformation. An important step has been taken in the continuous restoration of the Anacostia River with the installation of this system, which is designed to stop 98% of wastewater overflows into the river.
Before this ambitious tunnel project, the city’s aging sewage infrastructure frequently led to devastating consequences: 84 annual instances of sewer overflows, disgorging a staggering average of 2.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage directly into the Anacostia River.
The introduction of the new tunnel system promises to drastically reduce overflows to just two occurrences annually, promising a remarkable enhancement of water quality.
The initial phase of this monumental endeavor has already averted the discharge of 15 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater, in addition to intercepting 9,800 tons of refuse.
The Anacostia Watershed Society, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club joined forces in a lawsuit that was filed in 2000, which is where this project got its start.
In a subsequent settlement, DC Water promised to address the issue by building a huge network of tunnels known as the Clean Rivers Project. Similar tunnel systems are slated for the Potomac River and Rock Creek, scheduled for completion by 2030.
The focus was initially placed on the Anacostia River, as it suffered from a disproportionately higher number of sewer overflows compared to other waterways.
The recently completed tunnel system also promises to lessen flooding in a few locations, including Rhode Island Avenue, which took the brunt of the horrific storm in August 2021 that claimed the lives of 10 pets at a dog daycare facility. Stormwater management features are incorporated into the design of this tunnel, protecting against floods brought on by storms with a 15-year magnitude or greater.
With a 7% chance of occurring in any given year, this degree of storm significantly increases flood resilience.
The engineering feat behind the tunnel system is nothing short of remarkable, involving a massive tunnel-boring machine that excavated and constructed tunnels measuring 23 feet in diameter, positioned approximately 100 feet beneath the city’s surface.
The comprehensive Anacostia tunnel network spans approximately 12 miles, connecting Shaw in Northwest D.C. to the Blue Plains sewage treatment facility in Southeast D.C.
The project, including the sections dedicated to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, carries an estimated cost of $2.7 billion, with a substantial portion of the funding sourced from DC Water customers through the Clean Rivers impervious area charge, incorporated into monthly water bills.
Functionally, the tunnels serve as reservoirs, capturing and containing overflow from the city’s aged combined sewers—pipelines that convey both stormwater and sewage within the same conduits. During intense storms, these pipelines rapidly fill with rainwater, leading to overflows that would release pollutants into the waterways.
There are still many issues to be resolved before the Anacostia River can be entirely restored, even if the opening of the new tunnel system represents a turning point for the restoration of water quality. High levels of bacterial contamination, which may have upstream sources, are still present in some locations.
A historical reminder of centuries of industrial activity, poisonous chemicals are still embedded in the riverbed. Although the completion of this tunnel project is a significant start in the right direction, much more work needs to be done before the area can be fully restored.