A sewer backup is pretty much guaranteed to ruin someone’s day. Precisely what we don’t want in our homes anymore, and pay agencies like DC Water to take away for us, comes back in through drains, sinks, toilets and other locations. It’s an unpleasant mess of a situation, and most of us have never had to deal with it.
So imagine what it must feel like to have a sewer backup three times in eight days. This is exactly what happened to some of our customers in the Bloomingdale neighborhood on July 10, 18 and 19. It rained very hard all three of those nights, but not for an extended period of time. Yet Rhode Island Avenue turned into a river, stranding drivers and sending water rushing over curbs into basement apartments. The sewer backups happened as a result of the neighborhood’s overtaxed connection to the Northeast Boundary Trunk Sewer, one of our system’s oldest.
There simply weren’t as many people living in Bloomingdale and neighboring LeDroit Park when the federal government built the sewers more than 100 years ago. Cellars became basement apartments, displacing groundwater and connecting more people to the system. But all of this has been happening for years. What was different now, that would turn a fairy routine rain storm into a catastrophe?
By the time of the second flood, it became obvious that we needed to do something. I called a team together late on a Wednesday to take some action. By Friday, our Bloomingdale Action Agenda was ready to roll out to the public. Engineering and Sewer Services are working on the source of the new flooding, while Sewer is also cleaning catch basins much more often. Finance will develop a new program to help residents buy backflow converters to keep the sewage out. External Affairs is spreading the word and working with customers. And even Water Services jumped into the action, helping the Department of Public Works hand out sandbags in the neighborhood in anticipation of yet another storm.
In 2025, the Clean Rivers Project will have tunnels ready to capture stormwater in a big rain event. But nobody wants to be told to wait 13 years when their basements are flooding today. So together, we will be working on short-term fixes for Bloomingdale for awhile
This situation is a harbinger of the challenge we face with outdated and over-matched infrastructure systems. Citizens understandably want the flooding resolved immediately. Yet the challenge is fundamentally connected to the main sewer trunk line – which was built in the 1880s, and runs for miles from this neighborhood to the Anacostia River. Expanding any one section of the trunk line won’t expand the volume of flow that can pass through the system — unless the capacity is expanded along the entire route. (Think of trying to improve traffic by adding a new lane only for several hundreds yards of the road – the next choke point would still stop the traffic). And the cost is enormous – our current plan to resolve the Bloomingdale problem is $600 million and will take more than a decade! Unfortunately, there are no easy or fast solutions.
The last thought connects back to the development happening in the city. Washington, DC is booming, and more connections are being added to already over-matched systems. Yet placing a moratorium on new connections would cause extraordinary conflict. Housing demand has also meant that basements are being converted to apartments, even in places where flooding is already an issue.
Such is a day in the life of urban dwellers, and the utilities that serve them!
Bloomingdale Preps for More Flooding (WRC-TV, 07/24/2012)
George Hawkins, Washington, D.C. Water’s general manager, searching for Answers in repeated flooding area (WUSA-TV, 07/20/2012)
DC Water Addresses Sewer Back-Ups in Bloomingdale, Flood-prone Areas (WUSA-TV, 07/20/2012)
Sandbags Available at RFK Stadium After DC Flooding (WUSA-TV, 07/20/2012)
Bloomingdale homes flood again, D.C. Water responds (WJLA-TV, 07/20/2012)
D.C. Water Outlines Short-Term Responses to Bloomingdale Flooding (DCist, 07/20/2012)
McDuffie: Bloomingdale Neighborhood Needs Help Now (Washington Times, 07/23/2012)
Dealing With Flooding in Bloomingdale (Prince of Petworth, 07/23/2012)