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Flood Fatigue: What’s Going On With Northeast D.C. Sewers?

People are asking for answers after facing the horror of geyser-like rushes of sewer water in their bathrooms, basements, and kitchens, through the toilets and up through the drains. This is how Edgewood and Brentwood residents experienced heavy rain on September 10th. It’s not the first day it’s happened. It won’t be the last. What help is available?

Long-Term Response: DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project

The Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that Washington D.C., along with about 860 other U.S. cities with combined stormwater and sewer systems, remedy the problem of sewage overflow system in peak times. These cities’ combined sewer overflows (CSOs) fill up with untreated human waste, commercial pollution, toxic materials, and random pieces of refuse along with stormwater runoff. They are a priority concern for the EPA. DC Water is therefore working on a major project to supplement the city’s century-old sewer systems with diversion chambers, prevent household backups, and keep raw wastewater from running into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and out to the Chesapeake Bay.

DC Water is aware of the chronic sewer flooding along Rhode Island Avenue and is currently working to increase holding capacity. Yet the Clean Rivers Project, including the new network of storage tanks, won’t be finished for another decade. To check in on the work, here is the Northeast Boundary segment of the DC Water tunnel system, showing current alerts and construction status. To get emergency notifications on your computer or phone, sign up here.

OK, so what about the people facing cleanup costs and workers in their personal spaces right now, during a pandemic of all times? DC Water says it could have been worse. The partly completed diversion system, including the Northeast Boundary segment, did head off a substantial part of the wastewater, sending it to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant before discharging it into the Potomac River.

That’s not much consolation to residents of Edgewood and Brentwood at the moment.  

Preventing Home Sewer Backups

DC Water says it “generally does not pay” for residents’ costs in dealing with the messes caused by backed-up sewers. It advises D.C. property owners to:

  • Pay for riders on homeowner’s policies to cover future costs from sewer backups. This is likely to be quite expensive, and renters will be especially vulnerable when policies don’t cover storm backups.
  • Remove any clogs from their lateral lines (line pipes running from the public sewer lines to individual properties).  
  • Stop sewer backups with backflow stoppers. DC Water will reimburse residents up to $6,000 for buying and installing these valves after applying for eligibility and obtaining permits.  DC Water says to contact Community Outreach Manager Emanuel Briggs at for guidance with the process.
  • Hire registered master plumbers (for example, from Servpro, Belfor Restoration, or Triangle Legacy Flood Restoration & Carpet Cleaning) to deal with backups in the lateral lines. Ask the plumbers to report any blockage in the public segment of the laterals to DC Water.
  • Report any backups immediately to the Water and Sewer Emergency Line: 202.612.3400. 

DC Water does not expressly include storm-induced floods in the description of messy situations residents themselves are responsible for fixing. But it accepts claims and will reimburse customers for damage “as a result of work performed by DC Water.” Such language does not exactly offer a comforting starting point. But on September 16th, DC Water announced that there would be direct financial assistance for residents addressing standing water damage. At this time, District officials are collecting survey responses to learn the extent of the damage.

It’s Time for a Durable Plan

DCist writer Elliot C. Williams wrote about the September floods, quoting Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, whose own family was affected by the backup. The Councilmember noted that heavy rains and flooding will continue even after DC Water finishes its construction project and that the most important thing is to address climate change. Indeed, the entire Mid-Atlantic coast is getting lower relative to sea level. Washington, D.C. stands at the juncture of two of the East Coast’s tidal rivers. The Potomac and the Anacostia are impacted not only by rain but by rising tides on an overheated planet. Since the District’s original sewers were created a century ago, these two great tidal rivers have become nearly a foot higher. And the tides keep rising.

It’s time to create a durable plan and put it in place to assist people with the ongoing issue of sewer overload. For now, Barbara Mitchell in the DC Water Office of Government & Legal Affairs is fielding questions about the impact of the September backups. The contact information is or 202.320.5299.

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