A view of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va.

A view of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va.

When D.C. built its sewer system in the 19th century, it was state of the art — but it turned out to be seriously flawed. As the population continued to grow, so did the amount of sewage produced. Now, after a rainfall of an inch or more, the system overflows, spewing millions of gallons of sewage directly into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and into Rock Creek. The city is finally addressing the problem.

The 1972 Clean Water Act called for D.C.’s rivers to be swimmable and fishable, but decades have gone by without achieving that goal. But twenty years ago the Anacostia Watershed Society sued DC Water over the sewage pollution, which resulted in a consent decree — a legally binding agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency. DC Water agreed to build massive sewer tunnels to fix the problem. The cost? $2.7 billion, with the majority being paid by D.C. residents via a Clean Rivers fee. 

The first tunnel opened in March 2018, preventing 90% of sewage overflows from entering the Anacostia River. The second Anacostia tunnel is currently under construction beneath New York Avenue Northeast. The third tunnel, which will stop the pollution of the Potomac River, is still years away from being completed, but there have been recent talks about a delay. So, when will D.C.’s rivers be sewage free? 

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • David Gadis Chief Executive Officer and General Manager, D.C. Water @dcwater
  • Jacob Fenston Environment Reporter, WAMU; @JacobFenston
  • Dean Naujoks Potomac Riverkeeper, Potomac Riverkeeper Network; @PotomacRiver
  • Ariel Trahan Director, The Anacostia Watershed Society's River Restoration Programs @anacostiaws


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Since the 19th century, D.C.'s sewer system has been pumping untreated sewage into our rivers, causing incredibly high levels of bacteria. And all it takes for this to happen is about, oh, an inch of rainfall. Twenty years ago, the Anacostia Watershed Society sued D.C. Water over the sewage pollution. What resulted was a consent decree, which is legally binding with the Environmental Protection Agency. This decree requires D.C. Water to build massive sewer tunnels to collect the storm water and to prevent sewage from spewing into our rivers.

  • 12:32:34

    KOJO NNAMDIIn March of 2018, the first of these tunnels was completed, preventing 90 percent of sewage overflow from entering the Anacostia River. The second Anacostia tunnel is currently being built beneath New York Avenue Northeast. The tunnel for the Potomac River is scheduled to be completed by 2030, but there has been talk of a potential delay. Joining me in studio to discuss this is Jacob Fenston. He's an environment reporter with WAMU. Jacob, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:03

    JACOB FENSTONThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:33:04

    NNAMDIDavid Gadis is the CEO of D.C. Water. David Gadis, good to see you again.

  • 12:33:08

    DAVID GADISThank you.

  • 12:33:09

    NNAMDIAriel Trahan is the director of river restoration programs at the Anacostia Watershed Society. Ariel.

  • 12:33:16

    ARIEL TRAHANThanks for having me.

  • 12:33:17

    NNAMDIAnd Dean Naujoks is the Potomac Riverkeeper with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. Dean, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:22

    DEAN NAUJOKSThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:33:24

    NNAMDIJacob, you have been reporting on this. Let's start at the beginning. What is the Clean Rivers Project?

  • 12:33:28

    FENSTONYeah. So, if you want to start at the beginning, I mean, it's a historic problem that is now being fixed by D.C. Water. It goes back to the very founding of the city. You know, since we've had sewers, they have dumped sewage into the rivers. In the 1870s, there was a big public works project to build really modern sewers at the time, very state-of-the-art. It combined everything that, you know, all the dirty stuff that washed off the streets in storm water with all the sewage that flushed out of buildings into one big pipe and flushed it out into the rivers.

  • 12:33:57

    FENSTONYou know, the problem 150, 100 and, you know, however many years later is that whenever it rains, as you mentioned, that big pipe fills up and overflows into the Potomac and Anacostia, you know, 80 times a year. And it's, you know, billions of gallons a year, historically. So, it's a big sort of historic problem that is just now being dealt with. And the fix for it is this -- you know, another amusing engineering feat, it's these huge tunnels, 18 miles of tunnels underneath everything in the city. They're 100 feet underground, and the idea is that when the overflow happens, when it rains, it doesn't dump into the river. It dumps into these tunnels. It's like a big storage tank that then holds the stuff until it can actually be treated.

  • 12:34:43

    NNAMDIWhat's the budget for the Clean Rivers Project, and where does the funding for it come from?

  • 12:34:48

    FENSTONIt's $2.7 billion, with a B, and most of it's coming from D.C. Water ratepayers in the District, residents and businesses. So, if you live in the District and you look at your water bill, there's a line item that says Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge, or CRIAC. It's about $21, right now, for the average resident. But it sort of calculates, you know, how much impervious area there is on your property, which is responsible for that sort of runoff into the storm water system and contributing to this overflow problem.

  • 12:35:21

    NNAMDIHow many of the tunnels are now complete?

  • 12:35:23

    FENSTONSo, there's a really big tunnel for the Anacostia, which opened in 2018. And that's sort of the big piece that's already opened. It's so far kept seven billion gallons of combined sewage out of the river, which is amazing, as well as 3,100 tons of trash, which I think is, you know, a visible impact that you can see if you go down by the river. It's visibly cleaner than it was a couple of years ago.

  • 12:35:48

    NNAMDIAnd you spoke with sources that told you the project may be in jeopardy of being delayed. Tell us about that.

  • 12:35:56

    FENSTONYeah, just to be clear, it may have been in jeopardy. I think it's off the table now, but, from what I understand, you know, D.C. Water was looking at various options to save ratepayers money, looking at sort of reopening this agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and possibly trying to save money by altering that project.

  • 12:36:20

    FENSTONMr. Gadis has spoken about this at some public forums at, you know, board meetings and public town halls. And, you know, from people I've talked to, one of the things they were looking at was possibly canceling the last big chunk of the project, or significantly delaying it. And that is a tunnel that will keep sewage out of the Potomac River. You know, if they didn't build it, that would 650 million gallons of sewage that would keep spilling into the river each year.

  • 12:36:52

    NNAMDIDavid Gadis, was the Potomac tunnel ever in jeopardy of being delayed?

  • 12:36:58

    GADISWell, I just want to be clear. It was never in jeopardy of being delayed. The responsible thing for us to do at the utility is to always look at ways to make sure that our ratepayers are taken care of, and that they are paying a fair amount of money. There is new law that was passed, and the EPA came out with integrated planning. It was something that we were asked to take a look at by a District government and also the community.

  • 12:37:31

    GADISWe took a look at it, and we decided early on that this was not the right way for us to go for the ratepayers. So, just to be clear, it is not being delayed. We are not looking at not doing the Potomac section and northeast boundary. It's been too successful of a project and meant too much to the District. And when you look at what the tunnels have done from an economic development standpoint, it does not make any sense for us to go in that direction.

  • 12:37:56

    GADISYou look at what's happened in the Navy yards, the wharf, Buzzard Point, St. Eve's, with the elevated tank. All of these different projects that we've been doing throughout the community and the economic development. And then you look at Bloomingdale and also LeDroit Park, the flooding that has been eliminated in those areas. This is the right direction for us to go. So, I just want to make sure everyone understands, it is off the table. We've met with a number of different groups throughout D.C., and they agree with us. And so that is the direction that we're going to go, going forward.

  • 12:38:33

    NNAMDICan you tell us a little bit more about how this project is funded, and is that a sustainable funding model?

  • 12:38:39

    GADISIt is a sustainable funding model. Just as Curt (sic) talked about, it is -- our ratepayers do pay for it. And it is approximately $23 a month right now. It's going down. And, as a result of that, you see the great things that are happening in the District. And so it has been a sustainable model, ever since the inception of the consent decree. I think that it will continue to be so.

  • 12:39:06

    NNAMDIJacob, you got a boat tour from the president of the Anacostia Watershed Society. What did you see out there?

  • 12:39:13

    FENSTONYeah, and I've actually had, you know, earlier boat tours. One of my first sort of reporting experiences on the Anacostia a couple years ago was going out during a rainstorm with someone from the Anacostia Riverkeeper who, we went to one of the outfalls during a big storm, as I was trying to hold my umbrella and record and take pictures, and it was a mess. But, you know, we could just see the, you know, sewage and storm water rushing out of this big opening in the side of the river.

  • 12:39:41

    FENSTONMore recently, I went up there on a nice sunny day and, you know the overflow wasn't happening. But it's also -- even if it had been raining, it probably wouldn't have been overflowing, because of this new sewer tunnel that's in operation. But, yeah, if you, you know, go kayaking on the Anacostia, you'll see these sort of big, you know, it looks like sort of a -- I don't know -- like a stone castle or something, these big sort of stone openings along the shore. And many of those are these outfalls where the combined sewage overflow happens.

  • 12:40:17

    NNAMDIAgain, 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have concerns, or if, in the case of Chris in Trinidad, you'd like to help. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Chris.

  • 12:40:29

    CHRISYes, I'd like to know -- yes. I'd like to know where can we turn into volunteers for these cleanup projects? There's a Kingman Island Project. I'm familiar with that, (unintelligible) Anacostia Watershed Project.

  • 12:40:44

    NNAMDIAriel, Dean, care to respond?

  • 12:40:47

    TRAHANAbsolutely. We have a lot of opportunities for people to get involved in helping to restore the river. We have a big Earth Day cleanup that happens every year on April 25th, so signup is available on our website. We have about 40 different cleanup sites throughout the watershed. That's a great day to come out and help, and we have other volunteer opportunities throughout the year.

  • 12:41:05

    NNAMDIChris, good luck to you. Dean Naujoks, what was your reaction on hearing the news that the Potomac tunnel project could have potentially been delayed? And we now know that's not happening.

  • 12:41:19

    NAUJOKSWell, obviously, Potomac Riverkeeper, we were concerned when we heard that. But, you know, as David has mentioned, that has since been lifted off the table. You know, our focus is to, you know, really make sure that this river's swimmable again. We've been doing water quality monitoring every week with other partners like Anacostia Riverkeeper and providing the results of that, so that people know when it is safe to go in the river.

  • 12:41:43

    NAUJOKSWe're launching our swimmable Potomac campaign this year and expanding the citizen science work water monitoring. We're improving standards to protect public health in the river. We're rolling out a rapid response team to respond to sewage spills and bacteria. We also have a swim-a-thon that we're partnering with, with shark fests and Special Olympics. And then we have swimmable action days to get people in the river.

  • 12:42:10

    NAUJOKSSo, there's going to be plenty of opportunities for us to promote a more fishable, swimmable Potomac River, and the goals of that are defined clearly under the Clean Water Act. And it's the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act come 2022, so we're excited to see D.C. get behind this effort.

  • 12:42:28

    NNAMDIWell, you talk about swimmable, fishable Potomac, but as the Potomac Riverkeeper, talk about the current state of the river. How polluted is it?

  • 12:42:39

    NAUJOKSWell, you know, I think it just depends on the day. I mean, you know, we saw...

  • 12:42:42

    NNAMDI(overlapping) And the time of year, huh?

  • 12:42:43

    NAUJOKSYeah. I mean, like last year, you know, obviously late May, early June, we're seeing high levels in the river. And you tend to see high bacteria levels. But last year, basically from late July through most of August into September, we saw almost two months of swimmable days. And so this is one of the reasons we're really pushing hard to lift this swim ban in D.C.

  • 12:43:07

    NAUJOKSLyndon Johnson, in 1965, said: “I pledge to you that we are going to reopen the Potomac for swimming by 1975.” And, unfortunately, that law is still on the books, and that's just a public resource under the Public Trust Doctrine that belongs to the people. And we just feel that this needs to be returned to the people, and people need to just be able to enjoy this river for their own choosing.

  • 12:43:30

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Jacob Fenston. He's an environment reporter with WAMU. David Gadis is the CEO of D.C. Water. Ariel Trahan is the director of river restoration programs at the Anacostia Watershed Society. And Dean Naujoks is the Potomac Riverkeeper with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. Ariel -- well, first you, Dean. How has the EPA changed since President Trump took office, and how has it affected the efforts to clean up our rivers?

  • 12:43:59

    NAUJOKSWell, I think it's no surprise that there's been drastic cuts to EPA. We've lost a lot of scientists. We're losing key positions in environmental enforcement. And an organization like ours that actually works a lot on enforcement, we're seeing, you know, direct impacts like the rollbacks on regulations to coal-fired power plants. You know, the EPA was supposed to implement reductions for selenium mercury arsenic, really dangerous toxic waste going into our rivers from coal plants. EPA stayed those rules. We convinced the state of Maryland they should stay the course, and those are in the new permits, thankfully. But we're one of the only states to do that.

  • 12:44:38

    NAUJOKSHere, locally, EPA was basically -- said that they were going to allow levels of E. coli that violated the Clean Water Act. We challenged that, and we're now waiting to hear back from EPA. They're supposed to revise that plan and come back to see, you know, where we're at with D.C. Water, just to make sure that we have water that's safe enough for human contact. So, sadly, we just have a regulatory agency that, in my opinion, is no longer fulfilling its mission to protect public health in the environment.

  • 12:45:08

    NNAMDIOkay. On to Kamyr in Washington, D.C. Kamyr, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:45:14

    KAMYROkay. Thank you. Just wanted to make a quick comment. I ran across this project because I was developing a national report for the Floodplain Manager's Association. And your project is a model for the nation, the way the agencies came together to make this happen in an expedited way, the way you've worked to get private financing as well as public financing involved. And the integration of storm water and flood management was just a tremendous, tremendous effort. And I'm so delighted to hear it's not going to get aborted.

  • 12:45:56

    NNAMDIWell, I'd like to put this question both to you, David Gadis, and to Jacob Fenston: is this project indeed a model for the nation?

  • 12:46:05

    GADISOh, without a doubt. It has the highest capture rate of any deep tunnel project in the country. We're going to be moving -- once it's complete, we'll move from 80 overflows that we have, approximately, per year here in the District, to less than two per year. We will not violate any of the water quality standards going forward.

  • 12:46:28

    GADISYou know, it is a project not only for this country, but for the world. We have individuals that come from around the world to visit us and view how we have built this project, how we've worked internally and externally and with different associations. And also, with all the environmentalists, and so forth and so on, here in the District. And so it is a model project, and we're very, very proud of it.

  • 12:46:55

    NNAMDIYour mission, Jacob Fenston, is to poke holes in that argument. (laugh)

  • 12:46:58

    FENSTONNo. I mean, I agree with that and I think, you know, I was doing a little bit of reading about what other cities have been doing under consent decrees to fix similar problems. I was reading about St. Louis last week, which was really interesting. They have a bigger problem, a bigger consent decree with a higher price tag, and yet, with all of that, they're not going to reduce as much, you know, to the same level that D.C. Water has to.

  • 12:47:22

    FENSTONAnd they're still going to be, you know, putting a lot of sewage into the Mississippi River, which they can do, because they don't have to make the Mississippi swimmable because of how, you know, the Clean Water Act works. But I thought that was pretty interesting, you know, that D.C. Water's committed to this pretty high level of pollution reduction.

  • 12:47:40

    NNAMDIAriel Trahan, you work at the Anacostia Watershed Society. That's the organization that sued D.C. Water in 2000, in the first place. What kind of impact has the tunnel, the one that is fully operational, had on the Anacostia River?

  • 12:47:53

    TRAHANIt's had a tremendous impact. We have an office down by the 11th Street Bridge, and we used to -- after it would rain, there would just be tons of trash. And we were always doing cleanups and getting the trash out. And now we really visually can see the difference. Like Jacob said, it's already captured thousands of tons of trash, because it is coming from that combined system. So, it's not just the sewage that it's capturing, but it's also capturing trash, as well. So, we're thrilled with the progress.

  • 12:48:17

    NNAMDIAnd what does the future hold for the tunnel? What's next? Maybe I should be asking that of David.

  • 12:48:24

    GADISYou know, what's next for us is to evaluate the green infrastructure that we put in in the Rock Creek Park area, and also continue to build the northeast boundary tunnel, and then also then go to the Potomac area, on the third leg, and be completed by 2030. So, one of our milestones is 2023 for the tunnel we're currently working on, and in 2030, for the last leg of that tunnel. And we expect that we will hit those milestones just like we did the first one in 2018.

  • 12:48:57

    NNAMDIAriel, the tunnels will massively improve the water quality of our rivers, but what else needs to be done? What are some other areas you and the Anacostia Watershed Society are focusing on?

  • 12:49:07

    TRAHANAbsolutely. So, we have three main strategies that we implement to get to that swimmable and fishable river by 2025. So, we advocate for policies, such as the Clean Rivers Project. We also focus on restoring our natural systems, because we have so many impervious surfaces, so many roads and parking lots where the water can't soak into the ground when it rains. So, we do a lot of work to increase the amount of rain guards and forest cover, meadows, anything that can absorb that water and make the landscape more like a sponge, less like a funnel, directing that water into the river.

  • 12:49:38

    TRAHANAnd also, perhaps most importantly, we work on reconnecting people to the river and engaging people through our education and recreation programs, getting them out on the river so they can see what an asset it is in our community.

  • 12:49:50

    NNAMDIAs to who pays for this, here's Pete in Washington, D.C. Pete, your turn.

  • 12:49:56

    PETEThank you, Kojo. I'm actually outside, so I hope you can hear me all right. Is that okay?

  • 12:50:02

    NNAMDISo far, so good.

  • 12:50:04

    PETEAll right, great. Well, all of this discussion, I find really fascinating. And I know that to really make it work, one's going to need a lot of money. And I wanted to mention that, in Maryland, my group, the Climate Exchange Group, advocates for a bill called the Climate Crisis in Education bill. And it raises the price of all fossil fuels. So, the price of electricity goes up. The price of natural gas goes up. The price of gasoline goes up...

  • 12:50:46

    NNAMDIOkay. But I'm not sure I understand what's the relationship between that and the tunnels that are being constructed here in Washington to help make the rivers cleaner.

  • 12:50:57

    PETEWell, I just wanted to point out that the bill is set up so that the costs are not paid by the people who are buying the gasoline natural gas, and so forth. It's all passed back to the original polluter. And the great thing about that is that it raises a lot of money. And it doesn't put a tax on anybody in Takoma Park or elsewhere.

  • 12:51:25

    NNAMDIBut that raises the question of who is the original polluter, here, and Elizabeth in Maryland has a view on that. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:51:37

    ELIZABETHHi. I just wanted to say I do feel the District has a greater responsibility, especially because of the lead that was leeched or became public. How much of the lead was leeching into the water system, and in the District, dumped so much phosphorous in, that actually set back the Chesapeake cleanup program? And no one ever really talked about that.

  • 12:52:02

    NNAMDIJacob Fenston.

  • 12:52:03

    FENSTONWell, I was just going to sort of respond to the who-pays-for-it question, which I think is actually really interesting in the District of Columbia. Because the federal government built this system and operated it for many years, and then sort of, you know, home rule happened, etcetera and, you know, hand it over, like, here's your nice sewer system. Oh, and by the way, can you, you know, spend a few billion dollars and fix this overflow problem?

  • 12:52:26

    FENSTONSo, you know, everywhere in the country that's dealing with this problem has the question of who pays for it, and also the fact that, you know, it's a federal mandate to fix it, but Congress has not provided very much funding. But, in D.C., it's a little bit unique, because, you know, the federal government actually, like, physically had a hand in creating -- making the problem happen in the first place.

  • 12:52:46

    NNAMDIDavid Gadis, what's next for the Clean Rivers Project? What's the next goalpost?

  • 12:52:50

    GADISWell, the next goalpost is 2023, when we complete the northeast boundary tunnel there, and then the Potomac. So, it's 2023 and 2030 are the next two goalposts for us. I want to tell you this, and make sure that every -- the tunnel that we have in place now, the Anacostia tunnel, is outperforming what we expected it to do. You know, we're way ahead of schedule from that standpoint. It was scheduled to capture about 81 percent. We're upwards in the 90 percentile today. So, it is performing at a very, very high rate, higher than what we thought it was going to.

  • 12:53:28

    GADISAnd so we think it's been a great investment. We're going to continue to make the investments that we need to make in order to make sure that we do not have any sewer overflows in the future and be able to contribute to the Anacostia and Potomac becoming swimmable and fishable. And that's what we want to do, and we think that's the right thing for us to do at D.C. Water.

  • 12:53:50

    NNAMDIWe have less than a minute left, but I think that you, in fact, can answer Amanda's question, Dean. Amanda, your turn.

  • 12:54:00

    AMANDAHi. I would like to know if they're going to jump in with us. Is everybody on this -- who's talking and doing all this work, are they going to swim with us? In which cities did they swim in rivers?

  • 12:54:12


  • 12:54:12

    NAUJOKSWell, we're going to invite them. We'd love for them to jump in the river with us. But I think what is really important to recognize is just the robust economic development that's happening on the D.C. waterfront, both on the Anacostia, the wharf and what's happened on the Georgetown. And according to the mayor, it's going to create 6,000 new jobs, 94 million in direct annual tax revenue. This is the future for the area, so we need clean water if we're going to have all this economic investment on the water.

  • 12:54:42

    NNAMDIDean Naujoks, Ariel Trahan, David Gadis, Jacob Fenston, thank you all for joining us. This segment about pollution in D.C. rivers was produced by Kurt Gardinier. And our conversation about Takoma Park's resolution to ditch fossil fuels was produced by Richard Cunningham.

  • 12:54:56

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, we take a look back at the D.C. sniper case with the host of a new podcast and debate the effectiveness of juvenile life sentences. Plus, making the case for beans, for your health and your pocketbook and for the environment. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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