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By most accounts, the Washington D.C. region was spared the worst of superstorm Sandy. But cleanup is still a major undertaking, and officials are continuing to monitor flood risks, damage to critical infrastructure and environmental impacts. We get updates two days after the storm made landfall.
- Chris Trumbauer West/Rhode Riverkeeper
- George Hawkins General Manager, D.C. Water and Sewer Authority; former head of the D.C. Department of the Environment
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, life after the revolution, we explore the future of free speech and activism in post Arab Spring Egypt. But first, life goes on in the Washington region two days after the superstorm, Sandy, made landfall. By most accounts, the DC area was spared the worst of Sandy this week. But responders have made clear that the region is far from out of the woods.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWaters are running dangerously high, flooding is a major risk and local officials are still getting a sense for the overall environmental impact of the storm. Joining us to explore some of the issues that may have many in our area on continued red alert is George Hawkins, he is the General Manager of DC Water. George Hawkins joins us by phone. George Hawkins, good to hear from you.
MR. GEORGE HAWKINSI'm glad to be on the show, Kojo, glad to be with you.
NNAMDIGeorge, the pounding rains that came through the Washington region earlier this week have moved on but all of the water that poured in, now has local water ways running very, very high. And it's my understanding that the storm water runoff also poses some pretty severe environmental risks. What are the things you're monitoring most closely now in the district and the water ways that surround us?
HAWKINSWe have sort of two parallel issues that we're concerned about in the district. One is when the rainfall was at its highest during the storm itself, we did have combined sewer overflows. What that means is that the pipes that were designed to hold sewage from buildings are the same pipes that are taking the rain flow off the street into the same pipe. And at some point that pipe, with this much rain, fills to its capacity and either will have backflow into homes or flooding into neighborhoods or we allow the overflow to go to rivers. And that's called a combined sewer over flow. We did have combined sewer over flows during this rain event.
HAWKINSThere was so much rain and that went to the Potomac Rock Creek and the Anacostia Rivers. There are no more CSOs at this point coming from Washington, obviously. The system rain has died down. So the pipes are taking all flow down to Blue Plains. But we did have CSOs during the rain event. What's coming to us now is everything that flowed into our river ways north of us because obviously we're near the bottom of the water shed.
HAWKINSSo there's a lot of the Potomac River, the Anacostia and the Rock Creek that flows to us that comes through other parts that were snowed and even rain -- snow and rain that is now melting and flowing off the land and making its way our way. So we are concerned about the peak flow that are still going to rise on the Potomac, Anacostia and Rock Creek over the next day or two with the same kind of issues.
NNAMDIIf you have questions for George Hawkins, he is the General Manager of DC Water. You can call us at 800-433-8850. George, a few of the districts neighborhoods that are prone to flooding were on high alert before Sandy came through but life in places like Bloomingdale was no way near as hectic this week as it was in the wake of this summer's Derecho storm, why was that?
HAWKINSThis is all a matter, essentially, of rain intensity. The issues that caused an overflow and in fact the kind of overflows that we saw this summer which were terrible in Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park along parts of Florida Avenue, were the result of the intensity of the rain. We didn't have anything like the duration of the storm that we just went through but for a brief period, usually not more than an hour or two, the rainfall events we had this summer were more intense, more rain, fell over a shorter period of time.
HAWKINSSo when all that rainfall was going into the same pipes underneath those neighborhoods, they became completely at capacity and that's when we were having flooding and sewage backup problems to many of our customers. What happened this time is that even though there was sustained high rainfall, it never was at the intensity that caused the pipes in Bloomingdale to be overwhelmed. There was overflow down closer to the rivers as I mentioned but we were able to get through, we were better prepared but mainly this was an issue of rainfall intensity.
NNAMDIGeorge Hawkins, how would you describe the environmental impact of all of this storm water ripping through?
HAWKINSIt's actually a tremendous challenge. The same issues that we -- you would see all throughout the water shed, with this level of peaking of flows, flowing through our river ways. It's scouring stream banks, it is ripping out a lot of what is implanted along the sides of streams as they go very high and then drop to very low with that velocity and speed of the flow. There's obviously a lot of stuff in the flow that's in the river that's coming from both combined sewer and what's washing off the land and parking lots and everywhere. So this is not a time to be near or in our water bodies. We recommend people just stay away for at least the next 48 hours if not longer.
HAWKINSIt's the better -- it's safer, both because of the flow itself, it's just very high flowing which is dangerous in its own right, but there's a lot of material that's been flowed -- that has gone into our rivers, not only from combined sewer over flows but also just everything that has run off the land with this scale of flow is in the water bodies now.
NNAMDIOnto to the telephones, here is Bob in Poolesville, Md. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBHi, thanks for taking my call. I'm an aquatic ecologist and been working in -- well, I live in Poolesville, Md., been working in the field for 30 years. And a number of years ago, I had reason to examine the storm water quality, etcetera in the D.C. area. And I noted at that time that the data that was on the website for WSSC, et cetera, said...
NNAMDIWSSC being the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, but go ahead, please.
BOB...yes, said that every time there was a tenth of an inch of rain or more, the combined sewer over flow went into the Potomac, the Anacostia, etcetera. And it seems to me, I'm wondering first of all if that is still the case, that every time we have a rain of a tenth of an inch or more, that we do have combined over flow? And it seems to me that when you have a small rain and you have combined over flow, the effect probably from a contaminate stand point is worse than when you have a major storm because your factor of delusion from runoff is so much lower, the basically the sanitary waste is diluted so much more from a major storm event.
NNAMDIIs that correct, George Hawkins?
HAWKINSYes. I mean, the caller is -- we do much better than a tenth of our inch causing overflows. In fact, in the steps that we've taken, up through this year, we've reduced by almost 40 percent, the level of overflows in the district. A whole series of steps that we've taken and as many people know, we are embarked on a giant $2.6 billion project that would capture the vast majority more than 90 percent of overflows, even in a much larger storm in enormous underground tunnels...
NNAMDIIndeed you've got your eye on completing new storm water storage tunnels over the next 10 years or so.
NNAMDIWhat can you do in the more immediate future to make sure that neighborhoods like Bloomingdale are guarded from freak storms like the aforementioned Derecho that bring a lot of rain in a short amount of time.
HAWKINSThere's a lot of steps and in fact the district we are working very closely with the major, we have a task force that the major formed that the city administrator and I co-chair. We have -- D.C. Water's provided funding to the Department of Environment and we are installing rain barrels at home and dwellings in the Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park neighborhoods. We've also provided funding to the Department of Transportation which is doing Green Development or low impact development which can absorb rain water at the street level, a million dollars of low impact development will be in place.
HAWKINSWe also have our engineers looking at accelerating parts of our big project, this big tunnel project and moving it forward so we can get the benefit of the big tunnel storage for rain water. But there's a lot an individual dwelling unit owner can do to contain rain water on their site that also makes their site greener but that's the rain barrels, rain gardens, green roofs and we're aggressively -- the whole city is really aggressively looking at those steps but particularly in areas like Bloomingdale where it's not just an amenity, this is really now a part of a very significant flooding controls scheme.
NNAMDIBob, thank you for your call. Here is Angela in upper Marlboro, Md. Angela, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANGELAHi, I don't want to alarm anybody, but -- jump the gun, but I'm just wondering about cholera. Is that something to be worried about at all?
HAWKINSWe do not believe cholera -- cholera would be caused -- or historically was caused if the pathogens would get into the drinking water supply. And the drinking water systems are designed to clean and filter out any of the contaminates that might have got into any of our water bodies. For the CSO overflows that happened in Washington, D.C., they are south of or below the drinking water intakes for the treatment system.
HAWKINSBut even if they were above, the drinking water treatment systems that we had in place for the district as well as the Metropolitan area are specifically designed to remove this kind of contaminant incase it is in the intake water. So the public water supply for this area is safe. Having said that, people should not, of course, be using just water straight out of the rivers to drink. That is a bad idea at any time, it's certainly -- particularly now.
NNAMDIAnd Angela, thank you very much for your call. George Hawkins, you can help me clear up another very important matter in today's Washington Post, on the front page, I saw a photo of Pepco spokesperson, Tom Graham, actually Pepco's CEO, in these parts, Tom Graham in which he seemed to be dancing in celebration even though the picture simply said, he was leaving the room. But I happen to spot a certain familiar face in the background on that picture and it was you, George Hawkins. Was Tom Graham really dancing or just kind of leaving the room?
HAWKINSHe was pleased. We all are. In fact, and D.C. Water's, we're Pepco's biggest customer here in the District because of the sheer amount of electricity that we use. And Pepco was very well prepared. We had some issues with power to our facilities, Pepco highlighted it and brought the power back on. We never lost power but they were issues that were arose and Pepco was speedy and quick in their response and like many of the residents in this area, we're very grateful.
NNAMDISo he was dancing? You looked good in the picture too by the way, George.
HAWKINSOh, we had a -- the major, the city administrator, called that to make sure all the main agencies were not only prepared, this was the aftermath to make sure we were following up with all the steps we had to take to make sure the city is fully up and running as I think it is today.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, we remember that you were a pretty phenomenal dancer yourself.
NNAMDIGeorge, well that's another story. We discussed it before on the show. George Hawkins is the general manger of D.C. Water. George Hawkins, thank you for joining us.
HAWKINSIt's been a delight, thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone now is Chris Trumbauer, he is River keeper of the West and Rhode River, South of Annapolis. Chris Trumbauer, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHRIS TRUMBAUERHey, thanks, Kojo, happy to be here.
NNAMDIChris, you've just come in off the water. What did you find in your survey of the Weston Road Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay?
TRUMBAUERWell, the first thing I noticed is it got a lot colder out there. In fact, I'm still trying to get my core temperature up. I literally did just get off.
TRUMBAUERBut what we did is, my team and I went around the Rhode River and the West River, here in Anne Arundel County, Md., and there wasn't any visible change. We did get a little bit of a storm surge and we had strong winds and waves but you couldn't tell just by looking that there had just been a hurricane that had come through.
TRUMBAUERWe did do some water quality sampling and we did see that there was a lot of fresh water that had come in from runoff and the rain. And that was sitting, kind of, on top of the water column. We still had the saltier water below. But that's an indication that this was a big rain event and we do expect that there would be some added nutrient pollution and sediment that went into the rivers from Sandy.
NNAMDIThe storm was responsible for a sewage spill into the Pawtuxet River. How does the river absorb that amount of sewage?
TRUMBAUERWell, yeah, it's -- from what I read recently, it was as much as 20 to 25 million gallons. And that went into the Pawtuxet River. And it's important to realize that that's not all concentrated sewage. It was diluted by all the rain water. And the cause, from my understanding, is that the station lost power. How will the river absorb it is a little bit unknown. You know, that water will eventually be carried out into the bay. And certainly you heard your earlier guest talk about the need after an extreme rain event like this to avoid water contact for at least 48 hours.
NNAMDIYeah, I was about to ask what advice do you have about whether to go near the rivers in our area over the next few days given the aforementioned sewage spill and the storm debris that we've been reading and seeing.
TRUMBAUERYeah, certainly it's important to realize that whenever you have a big rain event that there is bacteria and other harmful pathogens that make it into our waterways. Here in Anne Arundel County we actually have a blanket advisory against water contact 48 hours after any big rain event. And they've reiterated that after Sandy that that may be even more important.
TRUMBAUERBut what happens is when all of these -- when all of the runoff enters the waterway it can carry with it bacteria, other harmful things into the water. And that's important for public health, you and I who could touch the water, go into it or otherwise come in contact. But it's important for another reason and that is the shellfish that are harvested out of the waterways. And I just say that the Department of the Environment has prolonged their closure of the conditional harvest areas for shellfish until November 2. So everybody's playing it extra cautious considering the amount of rain and thereby the amount of runoff that went into our rivers.
NNAMDIWhat will you be watching for over the next few days in terms of water levels around the bay?
TRUMBAUERI don't expect the water levels themselves to change too much but what happened was there's a lot of rain throughout the watershed. And that's going to be making its way down through the streams and the creeks, ultimately the rivers into the bay. And so the true affects of this storm, like many storms, won't be felt or won't be known for days or even weeks to come. We're going to do some extra water quality monitoring in our rivers to keep an eye on things. And I'm sure that the state agencies and others will be monitoring the bay itself.
TRUMBAUERBut like -- the important thing to realize is the pollution that we're concerned about in these types of situations is virtually invisible. So nitrogen pollution, phosphorous pollution, you can't see it, bacteria, you can't see it but it's still there. And so we're going to continue to monitor and we're going to continue to be vigilant and hope that this was late enough in the season that it's not going to have any dramatic effects on our natural resources.
NNAMDIHere's Cindy in Shadyside, Md. for you. Cindy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CINDYHi, Kojo. I was wondering if your guest talking now that has looked at the West River recently, can he tell us in Shadyside area if we're going to see any floodwaters yet?
TRUMBAUERI can't say for certain but from what I have heard yesterday's tides should be the highest that we see. So if you got through yesterday, we're hopeful that you'll be okay the rest of the week. I drove around Shadyside yesterday and there was a lot of backyard flooding, all of the ditches were full. And the water level itself was up, which means that the drainage areas couldn't drain as quickly as they're used to. So we're all hopeful that if you survived yesterday you'll be okay from here on out.
TRUMBAUERBut remember all that water's got to go somewhere and it goes into our rivers. So just be careful, especially if you're coming in contact with the water because there is likely to be a lot of pollution in there.
NNAMDICindy, thank you for your call. Chris Trumbauer is River keeper of the West and Rhode Rivers south of Annapolis, Md. Chris, thank you for joining us.
TRUMBAUERMy pleasure, Kojo. Any time.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back life after the revolution. We'll explore the future of free speech and activism in post-Arab Spring Egypt. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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