DC Water, Infrastructure

Green Infrastructure Modification Approved


Last week a truly historic accomplishment came to a final resolution – the modification package to incorporate Green Infrastructure into our Clean Rivers Project Consent Decree was entered with the District Court. This modification enables DC Water to incorporate green infrastructure (GI) into the remedy we are building to solve the water quality problems associated with combined sewer overflows in the Potomac and Rock Creek. CSOs were an original part of the design of our sewer system from more than a century ago, and the challenge posed by overflows of a mixture of rainfall and sewage has existed since that time.

Our solution to that problem – the $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project, led with extraordinary distinction by Director Carlton Ray and his team, is the most ambitious program DC Water has ever sought to build and the largest public works project in DC since the Metrorail. Our performance on that project — both in terms of maintaining a stringent and demanding schedule and financial and quality controls — is second to none, and is designed to achieve performance standards that set the bar for the entire country. Even before the addition of GI, DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project has been performing at world class levels.

Clean Rivers Team
My hat is off to the entire team, led by the following people, but – as the photo clearly shows – supported by so many others: Leonard Benson (Chief Engineer), Carlton Ray (Director, Clean Rivers Project), Bethany Bezak, (Manager, Green Infrastructure), John Cassidy (Consulting Engineer, Greeley and Hansen).

The modification package entered with the District Court provides several key features. First, DC Water is enabled to invest at least $90 million dollars to build GI to capture rainwater before it can enter our sewer system. By doing so, we can eliminate one planned tunnel for Rock Creek and modify the design of another for the Potomac River. Second, to accomplish the GI and modified tunnel plans, DC Water has five additional years to complete this mammoth project – a timeframe in line with other CSO jurisdictions in the country. Third, the package also memorializes an agreement in principle we had with USEPA and the US Department of Justice to modify the original tunnel remedy to accommodate our enhanced nutrient removal efforts by extending the Anacostia Tunnel down to Blue Plains. Any one of these outcomes is outstanding – all three are breathtaking!

Fort Reno Green Roof
Fort Reno Green Roof

This milestone achievement highlights what is best about DC Water. First, it was a team effort. Nearly every office in the enterprise stepped up to make this happen. Of course, our engineering teams have been stellar in developing the designs and performance specifications that are at the heart of these changes. Who would have thought we could eliminate a challenging underground pump station, extend a tunnel design, and build green infrastructure – within the pre-existing budget?! The patience, determination, flexibility and fundamental excellence of our work through the seven long years it took to get us here cannot be overstated. I have never been more proud than when I have witnessed our team keeping on this path, even in days when the outcome seemed almost impossible, continuing to lean into the prevailing winds and relying on faith that the strength and wisdom of our ideas would prevail.

Our External Affairs team were instrumental in developing outreach materials and programs to explain our ideas to the public we serve, and to gain valuable insights and feedback that allowed us to improve our plans. It seems like just yesterday that we decided to rename the project “DC Clean Rivers” rather than the blandly bureaucratic though technically correct “Long Term Control Plan.” Our attorneys guided a complicated process through a legal thicket that in many respects was a first of its kind in the nation (reopening an existing consent decree, a step rarely if ever done); finance has run the numbers on almost an endless variety of options and alternatives; human capital management has recruited the best and brightest to join the Clean Rivers team – I could go on and on, but you get the idea though – everyone contributed to a brilliant outcome.

Proposed Kennedy St NW GI
Rendering of proposed Green Infrastructure project along Kennedy St. NW

Mostly, though, I am ecstatic (can you tell?) by what this means for our ratepayers and the District. I believe that the modified remedy will yield improved results for our environment, provide important job opportunities for our residents in great need, offer rate relief over the next decade, and connect DC Water more directly to the people we serve as we design streets, sidewalks, alleys, pocket parks and a host of other locations to provide multiple environmental benefits while reintroducing mother nature to an otherwise concrete human landscape.

Last, I want to emphasize that DC Water is the beneficiary from profoundly important leadership from the Board of Directors and the District Government. The effort to modify the Clean Rivers Project dates back to a Board Chaired by Willy Walker, who was a strong proponent from the onset. It was also supported strongly by Board Chair Allen Lew and brought to the finish line by current Chair Matt Brown. The Board itself has provided thoughtful oversight and resolute support. I also will forever be grateful to all three Mayors for whom I have served – Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray and Muriel Bowser – each of whom offered absolutely essential support at critical moments. The list of other instrumental supporters is unfortunately too long to mention here, although Councilmember Mary Cheh, then-Councilmember Tommy Wells (now DOEE Director) and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton have all had important roles in our success.

When I reflect on this achievement I cannot stop smiling and I am reminded of what former Board Chair Willy Walker told me in response to reaching this important milestone:

“Ideas are just thoughts. What makes them good ideas or bad ideas is how they are implemented.”

I am honored to serve alongside some of the absolute best water professionals in the world. Their nearly flawless implementation of what began as just an idea is truly inspiring.

Take a look at some of my other blog posts on Green Infrastructure:

Green Infrastructure For DC. Green Jobs for DC Residents

Green Infrastructure Challenge Winners

Green Infrastructure Challenges and Solutions

Top 10 Reasons to Implement Green Infrastructure and How Pittsburgh is Showing the Way


  • Fabulous, George. Congratulations! Such important work.
    I love the photos and the rendering also. May New Jersey Future use them – with attribution to DC Water, of course! – in materials related to our Mainstreaming Green Infrastructure program?
    Louise Wilson, Green Infrastructure Manager, New Jersey Future

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