A 2002 federal lawsuit against the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority would be settled under an agreement announced yesterday to build three underground water storage tunnels over the next 20 years, the chairman of the authority's board said. The tunnels will be designed to nearly eliminate sewage overflows that pollute the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek at times of heavy rain.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which with the U.S. Department of Justice brought the suit, had wanted WASA to construct the tunnels within 12 years. But the D.C. agency said that timetable would be logistically burdensome and would force customers to absorb dramatic rate increases to pay for the work.
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WASA, which initially wanted 40 years for the project, agreed to do the job in half that time. Authority officials said they would seek federal grants to pay a significant part of the $1.9 billion cost and raise rates to cover the rest.
If the U.S. government -- which has already contributed $85 million to sewage cleanup -- does not make significant additional contributions, officials said, the average annual water bill could more than quadruple, from about $311 to more than $1,300 in 2024.
Environmentalists, who filed their own lawsuit against the authority two years before the federal government did, attended yesterday's announcement at a pump house along the Anacostia and applauded the news.
"It's a great moment of hope," said Robert Boone, 65, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "Maybe, before I pass away, I'll be able to see the young people swimming out here."
The Anacostia and, to a lesser extent, the Potomac and Rock Creek are polluted by up to 3 billion gallons of raw sewage a year because heavy rains cause the sewer system to overflow into the waterways. The storage tunnels would contain excess water and sewage during all but the biggest storms until the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant could process it.
The Anacostia is so polluted that swimming is forbidden and its fish cannot be eaten. Cleaning the river is a major component of the city's plan to redevelop the Anacostia waterfront.
As a result of the lawsuit by environmental groups, settled last year, WASA had started a $143 million project to upgrade pumping stations, reroute some sewage pipes and install dams in others. Those improvements have reduced sewage overflows by 24 percent, WASA officials said, and should cut them by an additional 16 percent when work is completed in 2008. The tunnels are projected to cut sewage overflows by 96 percent.
The federal agencies must circulate the settlement agreement for public comment before submitting it to a judge for approval.