“When it rained, water poured into my unit from the bathtub and the toilet”


“Dear PoPville,

My boyfriend and I rent the basement unit of one of the row homes on this street. Sunday night, at approximately 5:50, my boyfriend noticed an odor in our unit and went to investigate. He went to our bathroom and saw dirty water coming out of the drain in the bathtub. Water was also coming out of the toilet. In addition, water was pouring out of the storm drains outside our front and back door – so much so that there was approximately 6 inches of standing water at one point. Some of this water leaked through the doors and into our apartment. We were fortunate that he was home and we were able to clean up the water immediately, with little damage. I’ve heard our neighbors were not so lucky. Our landlords and other residents immediately called 311. To my knowledge, no one from 311 responded to these calls – certainly, no one from any city agency came to our unit to investigate.

This is particularly troublesome because approximately one year ago, the apartment flooded while I was on vacation – requiring my landlords to make extensive renovations. It was later learned that DPW had not cleaned the leaves out of the sewers, as they are required to do, so the sewers were backed up. When it rained, water poured into my unit from the bathtub and the toilet – just as it did Sunday, damaging the floors and floor coverings. Just as troubling, my landlords told me they called DPW a few weeks ago to inquire as to when the sewers would be cleaned and received no response. Similarly, I was told that neighbors called 311 to inform them that just last week, following the heavy rain, there was significant standing water on 10th Street. To the best of my knowledge, there was no response to their inquiry either.

I’d love to hear suggestions on how to get DPW to respond to this now reoccurring problem. The fact that it affects our entire block leads me to believe it’s related to the sewer/water lines and not the individual units. I’ve contacted Rep. Evans and our ANC reps, but additional suggestions are welcome.”

36 Comment

  • I thought DC Water was responsible for cleaning the sewers and the catchbasin entrance things and that DPW was responsible only for cleaning the leaves in gutters. But apparently not?

  • Where is this? The OP mentions “this street” in the first sentence and 10th Street later on, but it’s unclear if they’re the same.

  • 1. It’s not DPW’s responsibility, it is DC Water’s.

    2. Get a [backwater valve](http://www.dcwater.com/workzones/bloomingdale/Backwater.cfm)

    • I can’t believe the landlord would make extensive repairs from the flooding last year and not install a backflow prevention device.

  • Something similar happened to me during a tropical downpour while living in a basement apartment. The city’s sewers can become overwhelmed with a deluge of rain and temporarily lose ability to drain. In my case, the drains in the exterior stairwells made a loud gurgling sound, then water came gushing up out of the drains. Do your landlords have any type of backup sump pump system? That might help alleviate the problem.

    • or a backflow preventer on the sewer line.

      • washington20009

        +1 Backflow preventer. Why is this the city’s fault?

        • While a blackflow preventer is important, that doesn’t not make this the city’s fault.

          • Backflow will only help prevent sewer water from pouring into your basement, but if there is a downpour and the sewer is backed up, you still will risk having flooding issues, because the back flow will keep the rain water from flowing into the sewer, as long as the sewer line is backed up. Have DC Water scope out your lateral to make sure it isn’t requiring replacement. Did your landlords replace the sewer lines in their property while doing renovations?

  • This happened to me a few weeks ago when there was heavy rain. It was caused by a blockage in the drain outside my property. I called DCWASA and they came out immediately and unblocked it. I haven’t had any problems since.

  • How awful! Then again, it couldn’t be worse than what happened to former Citylab writer Mike Riggs, who takes the cake for “worst DC rowhouse flood I’ve ever heard of” in this article:


    So, at least you can be happy you’re not him.

    • Something similar happened to me in the condo building I rented from in NW. We were the apartment just above the lobby, so not in the basement but the bottom of our tier. Our sink starting filling with awful black liquid. Luckily it did not SEEM like human excrement. Just disgusting kitchen waste (or I tell myself). The most frustrating part is the building refused to do anything. I was like, this obviously is not my fault, water is backing INTO my sink when I am not running any water. We got a plumber to come after I kept having to fill pots with the trash water and dump them out in the bathroom all day. He was able to snake the drain and tell the building that the amount of snake he had to use proved the clog was outside of out apartment. It was not a good day….

  • DC Water is who you should call because they maintain the public sewer lines.

    These types of backups will continue to happen, especially when we get a big rain, because the collection system is old and easily clogged by trash, leaves and even tree roots that can get into a crack in the pipe and clog the line.

    Also contributing is the fats, oils and grease from all the new restaurants that have sprung up. They’re supposed to maintain their grease traps, and I’m sure many of them do, but it is a major contributor to backups in urban areas. The tunnels DC Water is building and the new plan to install a green infrastructure ($2.6 billion project over 20 years) is intended to relieve the pressure on the system and provide a way to store the wastewater/stormwater until it can be treated at Blue Plains.

  • Like other people have already said it’s DC Water’s responsibility to clean clogged catch basins not DPWs. They are only required to clean each catch basin at least once a year but they seem to have a teams out every day. DCWater is really responsive when you report clogged catch basins and sewer backups. I’ve tweeted them when I’ve witnessed clogged catch basins during storms. They’ve always gotten right back to me and sent a team out.

    It sounds like what is happening is that more water is entering the system then the system can handle. This happened once at our house last year during one of those freak 3-4 inches of rain per hour storms. Lots of rain entering the system and it has nowhere to go.

    Have your landlord look into a backwater valve (I believe DC Water has a rebate program) and a sump pump (if he/she doesn’t already have one). What you guys can do is not run water during storms (laundry, dishwasher, shower, etc). This will help minimize water entering the system. It may not prevent every back up but it will help.

  • Given the history of flooding of your particular building, I’d recommend that the owner regrade that yard and possibly take other steps (flood wall?) to make it less likely to flood in the future. I wouldn’t count on the District being on the ball enough to be sure that storm drains are working or properly maintained.

  • I regularly find DC Water to be super responsive, especially on twitter (@DCWater). I just reported a clogged catch basin this morning and received a reply in under an hour. I also asked if they have the time to jump in here and help answer some questions. They have commented on POPville stories before.

  • Good luck with Evans — he is worthless on constituent services unless you live in georgetown.

  • Aglets

    I had a similar problem at work, and a friend of mine who lived on East Capitol in the 90’s had a similar problem too.
    in both cases, DC Water (or then WASA) had to come and basically suck the obstruction out from the street.
    She moved two decades ago, but i can tell you that in the 4-5 years or so here at work, we haven’t had any sewage overflow like we use to. Frantically knocking on wood now.

  • If your apartment flooded with sewage, then you can’t clean it up yourself. You need to toss anything the sewage touched, including carpeting (or your landlord should), and decontaminate everything else.

  • Hey guys – I’m so impressed with the group’s knowledge. Many of you guys have already hit the points that I was going to post but here goes:

    1. First off, we’re very sorry to hear about the flooding in the OP’s home.

    2. Typically, 311 is a good resource but for a water or sewer emergency situation, it’s best to call our 24-hour Command Center directly at 202-612-3400.

    3. We are also responsible for clearing catch basins (storm drains). You can tweet us a location or use our online Report a Problem feature at https://www.dcwater.com/report_problem/default.cfm. We have a team that cleans catch basins all day, everyday.

    4. Regarding the OP’s situation, we are checking the connecting sewer now to ensure that there is not an obstruction or another issue that would have caused a surcharge. If we find a problem that can be remedied, we will correct it immediately.

    5. There are also steps property owners can take to protect their homes. We strongly recommend installing a backwater valve which prevents wastewater from entering your building during surcharges of the public sewer system or back-ups caused by storms.

    6. Lastly, if we cannot locate an obstruction, then the most probably cause is the century old sewers in the neighborhood that are now undersized for the current population. We’re addressing that issue by building the Northeast Boundary Tunnel (which will also alleviate flooding in Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park). The tunnel is scheduled for completion in 2022 which is not what people would want to necessarily hear but it is the truth.

    I’ll be sticking around if anyone else has any follow ups. You can also tweet @dcwater. We post fun stuff too so if you follow us, it won’t just be all poop talk.


    • Off topic but since you’re here: how long does it take customer service to respond to email questions? I emailed a question about my account info on the website on 6/10 and haven’t heard back. I was wondering why my AMR chart for every month/day is blank. I wanted to see gallons used per day and sent a screenshot of the blank chart in via email.

  • DO NOT RENT a basement in “the flats” of DC. Stick to the hills (Mt. Pleasant, upper Columbia Heights, Petworth, Woodley) I do not know anyone who lived in a basement in Dupont, Shaw or Logan who does not have a flash flood horror story, usually involving having to get new rugs, drywall, mattress…and knowing it could happen again. That is why they are building a giant new catchment tunnel under the city. Those sewers were put in after the Civil War.

    • Right, and now there is much more development that has significantly increased runoff to downstream areas (like in the flats), and rainfall is intensifying. Class action lawsuits are used frequently to claim that a municipality is negligently maintaining its infrastructure and illegally taking private property without compensation by storing floodwater in basements.

    • Over 10 years ago, they did a big sewer replacement project in Dupont that resolved the issue there. I lived in a basement in Dupont at the time – had a back-up issue before the replacement, and none after.

    • This is really good advice. If you don’t have a backup preventer, it’s pretty much just a matter of time before the basement floods in a U Street/Shaw/Logan/Bloomingdale rowhouse. The entire basement level of my apartment building on W Street/11th backed up two years ago. It was a total loss for 7 duplex apartments that had their two bedrooms in the below-grade level.

      • We called DC Water via 311. You get connected to the emergency line none the less. This has happened to the block last year on June 11th, and it was much much much worse than this time around, though the response on last year’s incident was much quicker, and much more through by the members of DC Water crew.

        My follow up I got from DC Water was that there’s no back up, there’s no build up of debris in the CSW that runs along P Street on the South Side that are connected to the residents. I’ve lived on this block for over 8 years, and until last year, we have never experienced this. Not to mention, we are not on the bottom of the hill, or are we connected to (seemingly) to a large amount of stormwater run off being collected into the CSW. P street is somewhat of a higher ground at 11th, 10th and 9th street, and water normally flow off of P street to the South.

        The only difference to the neighborhood is: O Street Market happened down stream, and DC Water was doing some work on 9th street, but that was last year…

        Andy, do you have any insight you can share?

  • This is the 900 block of P NW. My house was one of the ones affected.

    DC Water is who was called, some folks called 311 as well.

    A question for folks who have installed a back flow preventer: Where did you install the preventer? I have heard that it must be installed under the slab, inside the house where the sewage line enters. The problem with doing that for most basement apartments would appear to be that it will damn the pipe and that water will rush out of your front storm drain, which is usually located in front of your front door.

    Our front drain was backing up, just as the toilet and shower was. This led to about 2 feet of water on the outside of the front door which then seeped into the apartment.

    Was your back flow preventer installed in a place that also prevented it from hitting your storm drain?

    Did you need 2 devices? We’ve heard anywhere from $4500 to $7500 to install one of them.

    As for sump pumps, we also have one of those. That helped to get the water out of the apartment quickly. However, it won’t prevent the water from overloaded sewers from pushing it’s way up into the apartment in a situation like this.

    • Tony – your front drain *almost* always ties back into the Main Line of the house before it exits to sidewalk/street municipal lines. Getting a backflow valve is the gold standard but you HAVE to then understand that when engaged, the valve prevents the exit of any runoff from the house/building. The reason this is very important is because many homes/buildings have their downspouts tied into a rear drainpipe (which ties into house plumbing and ultimately the street) which WILL cause additional (albeit slightly cleaner) backflow into your lower levels drains. So you MUST disconnect the drain and have it run into the alley. Not my favorite thing to recommend because it adds to overland runoff, but it’s far better than having it go into your house!
      When the plumber/contractor excavates inside your apartment (yes, it’s pretty jarring) they can tell you if the entry drain ties into the line (which it should, unless it was altered). All in all, it’s an expensive procedure but generally far less than having to hire a remediation company to deal with the sewage and inevitable mold that follows.
      We used to have terrible flooding in Bloomingdale – we’re talking FEET of water – and the people who flooded (via backflow) were the ones who’s downspouts connected to the main line. Please check that ASAP – it will only help your problem until they complete the investigation of the city sewer lines.
      Hope this helps!

  • This happened to us and we learned that a tree root had gone thru the water line. This was not resolved until we replaced the damaged section of cast iron pipe with PVC. The only way to check for this is to hire a plumber with a high power camera snake. Worth the money.

  • had that happen. you need to call a plumber, not the city. you probably have a blockage (ours was a root incursion). they’ll need to snake it.

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