Today, March 22nd, is World Water Day.

Here in DC, I’m looking out my window at water left over in the form of snow from yesterday’s first-full-day-of-spring surprise. World Water Day is designated by the United Nations to highlight the need for sustainable management of the world’s fresh water resources all around the globe. We are blessed with lots of fresh water in the DC region, but many others aren’t so lucky – like the 3,780,000 people in Cape Town who are currently experiencing a severe fresh water shortage, despite being on the ocean. Read more about World Water Day and its many activities at www.worldwaterday.org.

Closer to home, this was to have been a very special day for the big stream of fresh water that runs through the heart and soul of Washington DC – the Anacostia River. Today at 1:00 was to have been the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the huge underground tunnel that will substantially reduce sewage overflows into the Anacostia. The ceremony was postponed because of the snow, and will be rescheduled soon. This is a very big deal for the District, and a success story worth knowing about. Stick with me.

Since the time of the Civil War, the District has had trouble managing its sewage. People don’t like to think about this, but sewage management is really important to the life of cities because inadequately treated sewage is not only unpleasant, but contains bacteria that sometimes can make you very sick. A century ago, Washington was a hotbed of bacteria-related diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, as well as malaria, which is caused by a parasite borne by mosquitoes. It’s hard to conceive, but in 1895, the Surgeon General reported that 98% of the people working at the Navy Yard had suffered from malaria during the year. Malaria!

The sewer system that serves the central part of the District was begun in the 1870s and substantially completed in the early 1900s. It is designed to send sewage and runoff from the streets to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plan to get cleaned up. Once upon a time it was the state of the art, but now it is far too small for today’s demand. Dozens of times a year, during even modest rainfalls or snowmelts, it spews its contents directly into the Anacostia, Rock Creek, and the Potomac. Those are very good times to stay away from the water.

A fix for our old sewer system (and those in more than 700 other cities) was mandated by EPA in the 1990s and has been underway for fully 20 years. It's hard to remember and maybe a little embarrassing, but I was part of a group of activists in 2001 pushing for an aggressive fix with a "Cut the Crap!" campaign. The solution that was eventually negotiated, and then locked in place by a federal judge, is an outstanding feat of engineering and construction. New Metro-sized tunnels are being bored deep in the bedrock under the city to catch the overflowing sewage and eventually pump it to Blue Plains for treatment. Completion of the first phase of the Anacostia Tunnel is what we were going to celebrate today.

Once the Anacostia Tunnel goes online, about 80% of the overflow to the Anacostia will be captured and treated. In three or four more years, another big section of the tunnel will be done, bringing the capture rate to 98% percent or more. The Anacostia will be far cleaner and safer for recreation.

Forty-six years ago, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 with broad, nearly unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans, which is hard to believe at a time when the two parties can barely agree on the color of the sky. The beginning of that essential act lays out national goals for clean water (which is why it is often called the Clean Water Act):

(1)   It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985;

(2)   It is the national goal that wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.

In retrospect, these articulated national goals, which many of us refer to as “fishable and swimmable”, seem crazily ambitious. We have missed them by 35 years and counting, and we are about as close to completely eliminating the discharge of pollutants into our navigable waters as we are to visiting Jupiter. But let’s be positive—80% is nothing to sneeze at, and the Anacostia Tunnel project is a great and important step forward for the quality of life in the Nation’s Capital. I look forward to seeing lots of people out there on the Anacostia as soon as the weather warms up, kayaking and canoeing and sailing and maybe even swimming in the (mostly fresh) water without fear of getting sick.

Happy World Water Day.  See you on the Anacostia.