Monday, September 19, 2011

Dark Brown is my River - the poop on DC's rivers

I recently participated in the Nation's Triathlon....that turned into the Nation's Duathlon this year as e-Coli levels were so high in the Potomac after all the recent rain that the water was unsafe to swim in.  I've heard about this issue for years and I decided to do a bit more research on it. Here's what I've found out. 

According to DC Water, like many older communities, DC has a combined sewer system that serves about 1/3rd of the city - mostly downtown and the older sections. In dry weather, the system sends wastewater to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant. When it rains, runoff water also enters the system, and if the conveyance capacity is exceeded, the excess flow - rain and raw sewage - spills into waterways - namely Rock Creek, the Anacostia and the Potomac. This discharge is called Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). There are 53 permitted CSO outfalls in the District. 
DC Water is currently engaged in implementing the Clean Rivers Project - for DC CSOs. The good news is that once fully operational, CSOs will be reduced by a projected 96 percent (98 percent on the Anacostia River).  The bad news is that the project isn’t scheduled for completion until 2025.
So, until that new system is functioning, there will still be raw sewage coming into DC waterways when we have heavy rains.  The tidal nature of the rivers allows the sewage to travel further upstream.  And it’s not just sewage that we have to worry about. A lot of pollutants enter the rivers from runoff upstream in the watershed...such as fertilizers from farmland and manure from pig, chicken, and dairy operations.  WAMU just did a great...if verbally graphic story on DC's sewer system that's worth listening to.

So, what can any one person do? Don't flush anything other than toilet paper down your toilet. Toilet paper decomposes fairly easily, but other things don't and risk making their way into the river. Reducing runoff will reduce the amount of water that gets thrown into the rivers.  While only a drop in the bucket, harvesting the water that comes off your house helps...and it will reduce your watering bill.  Having permeable yards and patio surfaces will also help (bricks or stone vs concrete or asphalt).  Reducing the use of chemical fertilizers will also help. There are some great organizations that are working on the Anacostia, the Potomac and the Bay in general…and they always have some great outdoor activities planned.  Check out:
The Alice Ferguson Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Potomac Conservancy, and the Potomac Riverkeeper, just to name a few.

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