MICHELLE XU/THE HOYA Proposals dating back from 2003 to construct tunnels to redirect sewage flow may be delayed in light of more environmentally friendly options, upsetting some activists.
MICHELLE XU/THE HOYA
Proposals dating back from 2003 to construct tunnels to redirect sewage flow may be delayed in light of more environmentally friendly options, upsetting some activists.

The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority has proposed suspending multimillion-dollar construction on its tunnel systems project while it explores the implementation of more environmentally friendly options.

The original project proposal, announced in 2003, called for the construction of three large tunnels to prevent sewage overflow during heavy rainstorms. This overflow has been responsible for a large amount of the pollution in theAnacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek.

In light of recent developments in green technology, however, D.C. Water is now proposing that progress be halted on the Potomac and Rock Creek tunnels in favor of exploring environmentally conscious alternatives, which may include tree planting, bioretention facilities, rain gardens, green roofs and infiltration basins.

D.C. Water has requested an eight-year study of green infrastructure so the body can evaluate its options. The authority believes that new technologies could potentially provide a more sustainable method of cleanup than the tunnel system.

“What we are proposing is a large-scale demonstration project, doing monitoring to determine the efficacy of [green infrastructure],” said Pamela Mooring, external communications manager for D.C. Water. “At the end of that analysis, we will make a recommendation to the Environmental Protection Agency to do [an] all-green, all-tunnel or some hybrid program.”

D.C. Water’s green initiative envisions both public infrastructure as well as an incentive program to incorporate green infrastructure on private property. John Cassidy, a D.C. Water project manager, is confident that these new proposals will receive positive feedback from the community.

“[Residents] like the idea of greening the city and the fact that it could increase property values as well as improve the aesthetics of the city,” Cassidy said.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Jeffrey Jones expressed his enthusiasm for the proposals.

“I’m glad that [D.C Water] is doing this. Anything we can do to improve the environment the better,” Jones said.

Some environmental groups, however, are upset with the potential delay of the 20-year tunnel project. The Rock Creek and Potomac segments are currently scheduled for completion in the next two or three years.

“Right off the bat we have a concern with the timing,” said Jennifer Chavez, an associate attorney withEarthjustice, a D.C.-based, non-profit, public-interest, environmental law firm. “The consent decree that was entered in 2003 allows D.C. Water to incorporate green infrastructure and modify the size of the tunnels based on that. They could have been testing back in 2003. Now they are two years away from their facility deadline and lo and behold they want to do what the decree already provided for them to do.”

Earthjustice is primarily concerned with the adverse health impact of the sewage runoff in rivers that are frequently used by kayakers, rowers and the occasional swimmer.

“We would support D.C. Water building green infrastructure into their facility plan to close the gap, but they need to stay on schedule and get back on track,” Chavez said.  “The tunnels are the most certain method [of reducing runoff pollution] … Everybody would prefer green infrastructure, but our first priority is the river. Overarching environmental concerns have to take a backseat.”

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