Water


Washington DC, like hundreds of other cities in the U.S., has a dirty water problem. The problem goes by the name of combined sewer overflow (CSO). CSO is a fancy way of saying when it rains a lot, our shit and piss go straight into the river untreated.

This foul condition is caused by sewer systems that combine sewage flows (from toilets and drains) with stormwater flows (from lots and streets). Seven hundred and seventy-two cities in the U.S. have these antiquated systems that overflow when it rains a lot. Cities that were built after 1900-1910 solved the problem by building separate systems for sewage and stormwater.

Washington DC is under a court order to fix the problem. The original court-ordered plan is a multidecade, multibillion-dollar program of installing giant water storage tunnels. It would reduce raw sewage discharges by 98 percent and would be paid for by doubling water bills over a 20-year period.

In August 2011, the DC Water and Sewer Authority proposed a test of low-impact development (LID) in order to reduce its costs and construction requirements. LID is a set of stormwater management practices that directs runoff to places where it can soak into the ground: swales, rain gardens, trenches, porous pavement, etc. If we put stormwater into the ground instead of sewer pipes, says DC Water, the pipes will overflow less often.

But local environmental groups are wondering just how feasible the DC Water proposal is. They are objecting to it — in particular, the proposed eight-year delay in tunnel construction and potential reductions in tunnel capacity. While proven cleanup techniques are delayed, DC Water will experiment with LID techniques that may or may not provide significant reductions of stormwater runoff. Washington Post columnist Mike DeBonis describes the situation:

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Consider two views about sustainable cities. Call one the Green City, and the other the Compact City.

Green City: A sustainable city is a green city. It has lots of plants and trees that make the city more beautiful, provide habitat for wildlife, and help clean the air and water. It even has community gardens where people grow food and flowers.

Compact City: A sustainable city is a compact city. It has lots of buildings and activities conveniently close together so people can walk, bike, and take transit. It even has paved squares and plazas where people gather and participate in markets, performances, free speech, and recreation.

The Green City is popular as never before. Everyone wants more trees, more landscaping, more living green in their neighborhoods. Stormwater standards are shaping up to be the major vector by which the Green City is delivered — even mandated, in many cases. What does this mean for the Compact City? Is there a conflict between the two views?

In fact, both views are necessary. We have the technical know-how to create neighborhoods that are both compact and green. But sometimes standards and regulations don’t recognize this, particularly stormwater standards. Well-intentioned stormwater standards and regulations can put compact urban development at a disadvantage. They may have the unintended consequence of promoting sprawl, which hurts watersheds more than compact development.

Unlike many barriers to compact development, this is not a technical, social, financial, or even political problem. It is largely an administrative problem. Doing the right thing is simply more difficult for administrators.

This essay suggests four guidelines for stormwater management that support and encourage compact neighborhood development. These guidelines can help put regulations back on the right track, and may also help to make the job of administering stormwater more manageable:

  1. Recognize density as a best management practice
  2. Allow off-site mitigation, preferably in the neighborhood
  3. Plan according to the Transect (neighborhood context)
  4. Design according to the Transect (neighborhood context)

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