Sewage and Plumbing Map of Washington, DC By Sarah Hank


To view a larger map please click here

The above map was made by Sarah Hank. She contributed a crime map of DC here.

Sarah writes:

So what was in that water that flooded Bloomingdale in July?

I started this map because I was routing through some census data and came across a weird attribute:  Housing with Incomplete Plumbing.  (Definition here)  I mapped it out, and did not see a real geographic pattern in the tracts that were affected.  It seems like group housing (The United States Soldiers and Airmen’s Home being the biggest example, hospitals possibly being another) has the most to do with places with higher percentages of incomplete plumbing. I’d be interested to see what readers think about this data!

I wanted to add something else related to “sanitary” matters to the map.  With all the flash flooding that happened earlier in the summer, I thought I’d highlight DC’s combined sewage system. I added in a layer showing the extent of the combined sewage system as well as Combined Sewage Overflow outfall locations. If you don’t know about DC’s combined sewage system, it basically means that in certain places in the city, rainfall run off and untreated sewage are combined in the same sewer.  That means that when it rains and the sewer becomes too full, the dirty toilet+rain water has to be released somewhere, namely the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and Rock Creek.  The minimum rainfall to trigger the outfalls is sometimes as low as 0.1 in, and at most 1.7 in. There are other outfalls in town, but I’m not totally sure how those work as I never see water flowing out onto the streets, say, at Q & 22nd NW.  Check out this informative guide from DC Water.  To be clear, DC Water does have a plan to convert the combined system into a separate system.  But for now, heed DC Water’s warning: “Please note that the District of Columbia Department of Health has imposed a ban on swimming in all rivers and creeks in the District of Columbia and any contact with rivers and creeks immediately downstream of any sewer pipe discharge should be avoided.”

Regarding concerns about flooding in Bloomingdale (which from the map, you can see is directly in the middle of the combined sewer area), DC Water has committed an entire page on their site to the issue.  Bloomingdale neighborhood residents who attended a special meeting by DC Water on August 4th would have seen this powerpoint.  I’m not going to claim to understand the situation fully, but it seems to me that the water that flooded the streets as well as numerous basements as a result of backed up sewers was likely the combined rainfall and sanitary waste water that I spoke about above. Raw sewage soup.

Do people know about this?  If there was really human waste in the flood water, why weren’t more people talking about it?

37 Comment

  • We have been trying to talking about it but have been dismissed as having an entitlement complex.

  • Hey guys this is Sarah, sorry the map is a little off center…tried to fix it but it seems like there’s a bug in the software. You can still drag it around and zoom (or click on the link below the map to see it in a bigger space). Looking forward to your thoughts!

  • small consolation, but the poop should sink. even floaters sink after they have been waterlogged. i would suspect most of the flood water is water off the top. but…eh whatever. it probably doesnt make you feel any better.

    we should probably just try to cut back on water use while it rains

  • People ARE talking about it and ARE doing something about it. DC Water (formerly DC WASA) has done all it can to get the word out with progress reports that come with all water bills – which are going up to pay for this -; a huge staging area for a massive lift station is under construction north of the Navy Yard. The tunneling will eventually rival metro construction in its earth moving. Other cities that have implemented this remedy are Atlanta (successfully) and Milwaukee (not so successfully.)

  • Thanks for posting this information.

    We have an active program in place to lessen the impact of flooding in Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park while the long-term solution is under construction. Details are here: http://www.dcwater.com/bloomingdale

    Also, as one commenter already noted, we ended the use of the DC WASA acronym in June 2010 in favor of DC Water.

    DC Water
    Office of External Affairs

    • A 90% rebate plan for a back flow preventer that is $3000+, handing out sandbags, advising people to put barriers in front of their doors is somewhat an anemic “plan”. What of the older residents on a fixed income who cannot afford the initial outlay while waiting for the rebate to be processed? How about a voucher instead to cover the entire cost of installation?

    • Thanks for the correction on the terminology. I did put in a link to the Bloomingdale page of your website and mentioned DC Water’s plans to take action on this issue, not to worry!

  • Sarah, I love this map – it’s great! There are so many times issues have come up with PoP that I thought…we need a map to explain that :)

    The problem is getting a fix, it’s just a huge problem and very expensive to address (something like almost $2 billion I think). And it’s not like no one has ever noticed…it’s been going on for over 100 years. The project to fix it is probably one of the largest public works projects ever in this area. But the need to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff is also very important. I’m not sure if fixing the combined sewer overflows would stop the flooding or only stop sewage from being in the floodwater. So work to increase “green infrastructure” like planting trees, installing green roofs and other ways of managing water runoff are also badly needed (and a lot of work is being done on this as well).

    Greater Greater Washington has a great summary of blog posts on the issue here http://greatergreaterwashington.org/tag/Combined+Sewer+Overflow/

    And Sarah, keep the maps coming! I also really liked your crime map.

    • This is a good time to give some love to my favorite city program, RiverSmart Homes… it subsidizes up to $1200 for homeowners to install rain gardens, rain barrels, rip up concrete and replace it with pervious pavers, plant trees… basically a list of things that make the ground more permeable so there’s less runoff into the sewers when it rains. Available for any homeowner in the District. http://ddoe.dc.gov/riversmarthomes

  • So 1-2% of the homes 2 blocks north of my house, and 2-5% of the homes 2 blocks south, are lacking either piped water, a flush toilet, or a bathtub/shower? Sure, there are a few vacant properties here and there, but that still seems high! What does the presence of group housing have to do with it?

    • I meant group housing (maybe a better term would be community housing) like hospitals or retirement homes where each room might not have a toilet or shower in it. Does that make sense?

      • Not really. Why do these facilities have a requirement that each room have a toilet and shower or else the plumbing is incomplete, while regular housing doesn’t?

  • When is the big dig going to begin? Hard to believe they are going to dig a huge tunnel underground to store combined sewage/stormwater and then pump it to be treated! How many billions will it take?

    • 2.6 billion dollars to be exact. But since the project just started and won’t be done for a decade, we will be victim to the inevitable cost over runs that accompany 100% of public infrastructure projects around here.

  • Of course the water coming up from the sewer in Bloomingdale has sewage in it. The sewer is combined- both storm and sanitary waste. So, when it overflows, both storm and sanitary waste come up. Not sure why there was any confusion on this.

  • The Houses with Incomplete Plumbing refers to 1990 Census data – or is that just the link to the definition? What some of these neighborhoods looked like in 1990 vs 20 years later skews the comparison you are trying to make.

  • I am really glad I don’t live in Bloomindale right now. Having to rely on DCWater for anything is just wasted effort. They can change their name 20 times, but until they do a ground up change of all their people it isn’t going to matter.

    To the folks in Bloomindale, DCWater is blowing smoke up your arses. This problem is new, it just came out of no where this spring which is a pretty good indicator that there is some kind of restriction, or tunnel collapse in the combined storm sewer “somewhere” down stream from you. This isn’t a new volume issue. It isn’t like the “one” person who moved in on May 3rd was the straw that broke the cames back and pushed the system from never backing up, to large scale neighborhood floods.

    DCwater could have hired a crew (or done it themselves if they had the equipment which I think they would) to TV the large diameter sanitary/storm lines downgrade to determine the issue. There are only a few large bore lines where the problem could be and this work (as someone who has had this done on a large municpal scale a few times) should have only taken a few days, maybe a week if they were slow.

    As it is now, they still don’t know where the problem is, and pretending that the ~3 billion dollar tunnels they just started building will solve the problem is just childish and ridiculous. It won’t solve the problem because that isn’t the cause, and it is the height of stupidity to pretend that it is.

    Like I said, thank god I live on a geographic highpoint in the city and don’t have to deal with the systemic fail of DC Water.

    • I live in Bloomingdale – I totally agree with you. This has been an issue for years. “DC Water” has investigated the issue over and over and over again and the investigations have offered some solutions, like installing back flow valves ($ out of private citizen’s pocket to fix DC Water’s faults). Oh, and then there’s the sand bags… a lot of good that will do when sewage is coming up through your toilets, showers, drains, and internal sump pump system.

      One thing I’d like DC Water to address is the use of the ‘inflatable dams’ that are built into the combined sewer system and if these dams were open or closed at the time of extreme downpours. If they weren’t open to allow the flow of water – thus flooding areas of the main sewer line they are grossly negligent in their operating of the system.

      Have have been snaking cameras through the system – haven’t (yet) found blockages but then again, they are only doing it in the Bloomingdale area, that I’m aware of.

    • They have actually been going block by block with video inspection trucks starting up by Bryant and working south, presumably looking for these obstructions specifically. I live in the neighborhood, and I’m not sure what else people want DCWater to do. They don’t possess magic wands.

      • They don’t seem to have any problems figuring out how to deposit my payment check.

        How about for a start coordinate and pay up front for installation of backflow preventers. Chalk it up to the cost of doing business for neglecting to up keep for the last 40+ years.

        • Well, yes, they are a utility company. They are still providing some utility. Asking for financial help installing backflow preventers is reasonable, and a path you can try to get them to meet halfway on. Paying wholesale for them isn’t their job, though. They don’t own the service once it enters your house.

          Not to be too snarky (and I know this is), but this is *precisely* the reason that we didn’t look at any houses south of V St in our search. The occasional flooding problems in this neighborhood are well documented from about U St south. Home ownership is a pain in the ass sometimes as it is, and this was one eventuality we didn’t want to deal with.

          • It is the leaving the house and staying left service that is the problem. And the issue is not in my house (for the record, I do not own one of the houses that has the back flow problem; I am simply sympathetic and tired of the DC shrug of ‘welcome to DC’ mindset that doesn’t hold anyone accountable.) but in the pipes down the line. And the sewage back up is not a part of the historic flooding issues, to my understanding. Flood water in a swamp is a fact of life. But sewage coming back up pipes into houses is another matter all together. The sewer and drainage system should have been separated at least 20 years ago when the city started pushing its urban renewal agenda. But, again to my understanding, the city isn’t even paying for the new system just under construction rather it is being funded by federal stimulus dollars per directive from EPA. DC needs to commit to infrastructure if it wants to sustain growth. But that’s the catch isn’t it. DC is kind of double personality on the issue of growth because of the standard division between those that want to maintain the status quo and those that want DC to be on par with other major world cities. If DC Water is not pressured by the Council, in particular McDuffie, who was elected into office in large part because of Bloomingdale, we will have our answer that it’s business as usual. Not to be too dramatic but this is a litmus test for the future of DC.

  • Yes, people know about it – that’s a funny question. But, there is a no connection between the “incomplete plumbing” data and the combined sewer overflow problem. So, the shading is meaningless.

    The flood waters in a deluge are so diluted that the bigger problem is not human waste but silt and sand, and the force of the water gouging out the riverbeds.

  • “During periods of significant rainfall, the capacity of a combined sewer may be exceeded. When this occurs, regulators are designed to let the excess flow, which is a mixture of storm water and sanitary wastes, to be discharged directly into the Anacostia River, Rock Creek, the Potomac River, or tributary waters. This excess flow is called Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). Release of this excess flow is necessary to prevent flooding in homes, basements, businesses, and streets.”
    http://www.dcwater.com/wastewater_collection/css/default.cfm

    “As part of the current Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Abatement Program implemented in the last decade, there has been an effort to maximize in-line storage and minimize combined sewer overflows to receiving waters. The CSO Abatement Program consists of collection system optimization using inflatable dams, dynamically controlled weirs, outfall gates and other flow regulating devices, sewer separations, and a swirl treatment facility. DC Water is currently in the process of designing the replacement of the first generation of inflatable dams with a more durable version of this technology”
    http://www.dcwater.com/wastewater_collection/default.cfm

  • There’s no silver bullet. It’s quite intellectually unsatisfying, but sometimes that’s how it is. The solution will be complicated, expensive, and lengthy. Welcome to DC.

    Love the map, by the way.

  • For the people who have bought in these areas recently, were you aware of this problem when you bought? Is this the kind of thing that has to be disclosed to a prospective buyer?
    For anyone considering buying in these areas, why would you until the problem gets fixed?

    • No, it is not disclosed. That is an issue isn’t it? The effect on property values. If this were happening on Capitol Hill or Georgetown, I do wonder what the pace of a solution would be.

      • I’m not sure if it needs to be legally disclosed or not ( I can’t remember if there is a section for non-tidal flooding on the disclosure forms). A good inspector should be able to determine signs of past flooding if it was significant. Obviously not always possible, but caveat emptor definitely applies here. Do your research, ask the neighbors if you suspect the area is susceptible. Same thing applies to any area of the city, even Georgetown or the Hill. As noted this was an issue in the heart of Dupont a few short years ago.

        • Yes, absolutely do your due diligence research, but that does not let the utility or ultimately the city off the hook for providing and establishing well maintained services – that are paid for by consumers.

        • When it comes to disclosure of the issue – it’s sewage back flow technically – which to my knowledge does not have to be reported because its not flooding. There is a difference.

          The general note of streets flooding and sewage back up was never disclosed when I moved to the area either. Yes, you can do extensive searches online to find information – but then you also have to know where to look.

          If a place had flooded – there could have been repairs done and unless you examine the walls extremely close to see if there was drywall replaced around the unit/house you won’t know unless there are records of it.

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