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The Biggest Infrastructure Project You've Probably Never Heard Of

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Today is the groundbreaking of the National Capital region's largest infrastructure project since the construction of Metrorail in the 1970s. The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, more commonly known as D.C. Water, is beginning a 20-year, $2.6 billion initiative, known as the Clean Rivers Project, consisting of storage and conveyance tunnels designed to modernize our sewer system and protect the environment. As a new member of the D.C. Water Board of Directors, I am excited to be a part of such a major and important undertaking.

While most residents, including myself, take water for granted, I have quickly learned that D.C. Water is perhaps the most important utility in our region. It is critical to every aspect of our lives, from public health, to energy production, to all of our daily activities. Without clean water, our lives would grind to a halt. And without an adequate sewer system, our health and our environment would pay a dear price. The Clean Rivers Project is designed to address these problems and ensure that waste is treated and released back into the environment in a way that minimizes impact on the ecosystem.

As in many older cities, about 1/3 of the District of Columbia has a combined-sewer system that was designed and built by the federal government prior to Home Rule. This means that the same pipe carries sewage from homes and businesses, as well as rain that runs off buildings and roads, to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. This plant in Southwest D.C., the largest of its kind in the world, removes contaminants that could harm the environment from wastewater before releasing it into the Potomac.

In times of heavy rain, the pipes are not large enough to carry all of the combined stormwater and sewage, and the system is designed to release it into the nearest body of water instead of allowing it to back up into roads and basements across the region. Every year, about 2.5 billion gallons of combined sewage is released directly into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers as a result of these overflows.

The Clean Rivers Project is a result of a federal mandate. It consists mainly of a network of tunnels throughout the District designed to hold approximately 200 million gallons of combined stormwater and sewage and convey it to Blue Plains for treatment. These tunnels will be more than 23 feet in diameter and will be built more than 100 feet below the surface, extending along the east bank of the Potomac, then along the west bank of the Anacostia to RFK Stadium. From there, the network will extend north and eventually west.

You won't see these tunnels being built because they are so far below the surface, but the undertaking is mammoth in proportion. A massive tunnel-boring machine, extending the length of a football field, will be used for the project. I've seen pictures of this machine, and it looks like something from a science-fiction movie. Train tracks will be installed inside the tunnels to ferry workers back and forth. The project will generate up to 200 new jobs, a welcome addition in a down economy for construction.

Despite the federal mandate for the Clean Rivers Project, about 95 percent of the cost will fall to D.C. Water's retail ratepayers in the District and suburban wholesale customers. By 2020, the average single-family water and sewer bill in the District of Columbia will exceed $100. This is a sacrifice that all of us will need to make to adhere to federal standards and protect the environment. However, D.C. Water is beginning discussions with the U.S. EPA about delaying construction of future tunnel segments in order to test low-impact development, a green infrastructure approach including green roofs, trees, and porous pavement that will reduce stormwater runoff at the source. The goal of this is to green District neighborhoods, reduce runoff and ultimately save money for ratepayers.

As a resident of the District, I am always curious about how my money is being spent. Whether it is on taxes or utilities. In the case of D.C. Water, rates are increasing every year, and I wanted all of you to know one of the main reasons why. The Clean Rivers Project is federally mandated, but it's also an important investment in our environment, food supply and quality of life.