Scott Faber’s article on the Anacostia River, “There’s still hope for the Anacostia in spite of all the strikes against it,” (December 2006) provided great renewed hope that we can restore severely degraded suburban and urban waters and landscapes.
Karl Blankenship’s related “Editor’s Note” comments about the discovery of a broken sewer main while bicycling along parkland in that river’s Northwest Branch also helped to highlight one of the most troubling aspects of such efforts—continually occurring problems with broken sewer lines.
It also reminded me of people who joke about septic users not knowing where their septic systems are located. Those same people (sewer users) are typically quite clueless on how frequently their contributions don’t make it to the sewer plant.
Blankenship aptly described his experience smelling the “muddy gray-brown” stream next to the broken sewer as “eye opening.” I am sure it was also a nose-pincher.
Having worked for years around the Washington metropolitan area on stream and river restoration projects, I found that such experiences with broken sewer lines are much too common. Years of work and millions of dollars have been undone in an instant with a sewer break.
Even more disturbing, in this case the sewer utility, as part of a $350 million settlement from a previous sewer line break, agreed to inspect and clean these very sewer lines. That this level of scrutiny produced this discouragingly poor effect should further pinch the nose.
Paying attention to the integrity of sewer lines should be just as important as the efficiency of the sewer plants. It doesn’t matter how efficient they are if the stuff doesn’t get there.
Ironically, Blankenship’s riding companion, Bill Matuszeski, authored “Even at their best, septic systems are bad for the Bay” (March 1997) during his directorship of the EPA Bay Program, an article openly critical of “the lowly septic system” while praising sewer technology. Matuszeski is a long-standing member of the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee. Perhaps experiencing this sewer line dumping raw sewage into the Northwest Branch changed his perspective on sewer technology.
The episode does little to burnish the reputation of the Washington area’s sewer system that already delivers billions of gallons of combined sewer overflows each year into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. It does highlight a critical point—the system’s long-term control plan still needs funding, as do a lot of other infrastructure projects in our region as well as the whole country.
I hope this experience will also demonstrate that we need a balanced approach to evaluating where to best implement septic and sewer systems.
Simple steps in that direction would be for the Bay Program’s nutrient model to account for reported leaks from sewer line breaks and for the fraction of nutrient-laden sewage sludge that is applied on land but runs off as “non-point source” pollution.
Experience has taught me that “sewer buffs” will likely dismiss me as a misguided proponent of those “lowly septic systems,” so I stress that both technologies need to have better attention paid to their siting, design, construction, inspection and maintenance. Without it, our steps to restore our blighted urban and suburban streams will falter.
Rachel Carson spent much of her adult life living in Silver Spring, near the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia where that leak occurred. I think that the enveloping silence which she wrote about in “Silent Spring” was strongly influenced by what was occurring around her home and along that creek. That watershed book’s opening line is “There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.”
I think that she would agree that much has improved since the book’s publishing in 1962, and with due perseverance that town will again find full harmony.