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Water: The high price of cheap

Under D.C., a new tunnel almost no one will see

Scott Tong Feb 24, 2015
Water: The high price of cheap

Under D.C., a new tunnel almost no one will see

Scott Tong Feb 24, 2015

Reporter’s Notebook:

My water tunnel tour starts at 7 a.m. Come early, the media relations person for the utility DC Water tells me, it’s a 35-minute train ride to the tunnel face. The tunnel boring machine has already chewed through more than three miles of earth, in what will eventually be a colossal, 13-mile network under the District of Columbia.

The visit begins like an oil rig tour: Safety talk. Helmet. Earplugs. Safety glasses. Boots. “Tuck in your pants,” DC Water construction director Christopher Allen says. It can be messy down there.

Scott Tong in center. Christopher Allen to right (construction director, DC Water). Ray Hashimee, assistant resident engineer, EPC Consulting to the left.

It turns out the tunnel-making machine, a German-made industrial digger, has a name: Ladybird. These machines are commissioned like ships, I’m told. Each machine has a name, always female. In this case, the namesake is a former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who campaigned for cleaner rivers in the 1960’s and reportedly pressured her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, to declare D.C.’s putrid Potomac River a “national disgrace.”

Follow Ladybird’s progress here:

Why construct a mega-tunnel no one will ever see? The point is to catch rainwater from big storms, and give the water somewhere to go. Right now, when a big storm hits, the water drains into the sewer pipe system. That’s how it was designed. The sewer and storm water systems are one.

DC Water CEO George Hawkins picks up the story there:


“All of that storm water rushes into the storm drain and goes into the pipe. And almost no matter how big it is, they fill … the choice by design was an overflow to rivers,” says Hawkins.

Here’s George Hawkins talking about the DC Clean River Project:

You mean, right now raw sewage goes straight into the rivers, I ask? Hawkins nods. Eww. The completed tunnel give the sewer/rainwater cocktail a different place to go, a place to be stored and treated rather than dumped straight into rivers.

The elevator buzzes. Down we go, 16 floors to the tunnel. By now, the staggering dimensions come into focus. This is no crawl-through-it tunnel. Twenty-three feet in diameter, it’s roughly the size of a Metro train tunnel. That allows for enough water in the biggest of storms, over the next 100 years. This is an infrastructure project to last generations. “The Roman aqueduct,” Hawkins declares.

The train comes to pick us up, and off we go in the dark. Twenty minutes in, I’m told we’re 80 feet below the bottom of the Potomac River. I exhale slowly. It’s actually quite warm inside, maybe 55 degrees compared with 30 on the outside. It’s somewhat lighted, and I’m told in an emergency there are rudimentary facilities available. The only thing missing, really, is a cellular signal. Fifteen minutes later, we reach Ladybird, boring away. Here is what she looks like, in a model.

At the tunnel face, our party exits and walks a few steps along the tunnel wall. Verellan points out each white-colored tunnel section as we pass. Ladybird digs in six-foot increments. Then each section is immediately reinforced by a concrete, cylindrical retaining wall to keep it in place. On today’s newest, cleanest section, a construction worker spray paints @marketplace public radio on the wall to mark the occasion.

The Marketplace twitter handle on the wall of the D.C. tunnel.

It’s a shrewd PR move. Later in the day, I email a picture of the spray-painted panel to my Sustainability Desk colleagues, suggesting we have a permanent spot in D.C. infrastructure lore. I don’t realize until the next morning that this “I was here” moment will likely wash away when the first storm hits the tunnel.

Our group approaches the backside of Ladybird, the only part I can see. The boring machine is longer than a football field; regular folks like reporters can’t enter (her cockpit is pressurized). At this point, a half-dozen workers install the newest concrete ring to the tunnel. Work will go on like this, every day, until the project’s anticipated finish date of 2018. That’s when this tunnel will open for storm/sewer water business.

What will become of D.C.’s rivers, the Potomac and Anacostia? The aspiration is for them to be clean enough to be “swimmable and fishable,” Hawkins says. This is not his goal, but rather a mandated requirement of the EPA under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Swimmable? Fishable? My wife’s cousin rows regularly on the Anacostia and has told us of televisions floating by. One article mentioned a cow’s head. If you’ve lived here long enough, chances are you’ve heard the joke about the Anacostia: it’s so dirty you can walk across and leave footprints. Then there’s LBJ’s description of the Potomac as disgraceful. We’ll see.

Nationwide, though, a slow process is underway of cleaning up urban waterways. This is more than an environmental thing. A downtown river is now viewed by development types as a high-end economic hub, a place for high-rises, ballparks and walking trails.

“Think about where we were in the late 60s, where we literally had rivers on fire in Cleveland,” says Matt Ries, chief technical officer of the nonprofit Water Environment Federation. Now “we could talk about Chicago that used to have along the Chicago River all kinds of warehouses that are all being converted into high price condos. You have San Antonio with its river walk. You look at the inner harbor of Baltimore. People want to be by the water. There’s something inherent in our DNA that attracts us to water. Why do people go to the beach every summer?”

Matt Ries, chief technical officer, Water Environment Federation.

“Think about where we were in the late 60s, where we literally had rivers on fire in Cleveland,” says Matt Ries, chief technical officer, Water Environment Federation.

Here’s Matt Ries talking about rivers as an economic resource for cities:

This tunnel project is ambitious, impressive, and expensive. The projected pricetag is $2.6 billion. Some of the funding comes from a rare 100-year bond issuance. Some will come from ratepayers, who have already seen monthly rates doubled to more than $80 a month in the last six years.

To the angry ratepayers, Hawkins offers this defense: you can spend the public’s money on storm water emergencies after the fact. Or you can get ahead and fund preventive efforts like this one. “Either way,” Hawkins says, “you pay.”


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