A Mandatory Sewage Plan In Search of Federal Funding

Wastewater is processed at the Blue Plains treatment plant. A new sewage management plan would store excess runoff in underground tunnels until the plant could handle it.
Wastewater is processed at the Blue Plains treatment plant. A new sewage management plan would store excess runoff in underground tunnels until the plant could handle it. (2000 Photo By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
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By Sopan Joshi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

Water and sewer bills in the District will increase dramatically if the federal government does not bear the burden of a $2.2 billion sewage management plan mandated to reduce pollution of the region's waterways.

The project is required to meet the city's obligations under the Clean Water Act, but there is no guarantee of federal funds.

In the next few months, the D.C. Council will consider a proposal to add a charge to water and sewer bills to help pay for the project. Without federal support, the typical residential monthly sewer bill will soar. By 2025, when the work must be completed, bills could be substantially higher -- up to $110 from $30, said Olu Adebo, acting chief financial officer of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

The proposal would also change the flat fee for storm water runoff, $7 a year for residential customers, to a fee calculated using the amount of paved area on a property. People would pay more if their property has a substantial amount of paved area, which funnels more runoff into storm water drains. Those who take measures to prevent runoff would pay less.

This fee change would create a new category of WASA customers. Property owners who don't have WASA connections for water or sewage, such as those who own parking lots, would be billed based on the amount of storm water running off their property, Adebo said.

Under the proposal, all new buildings would be required to have features that reduce runoff. Existing buildings would not have to be changed immediately, but in a year or two, subsidies and incentives would be introduced to reduce runoff. Property owners who don't reduce runoff would pay higher storm water fees.

A task force headed by council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is drafting the proposal, along with WASA and the D.C. Department of the Environment. While the project proceeds, the District will have to request federal money each year or get consumers to pay for it.

"We have to do it because of federal orders," Graham said. "I don't think the 136,000 ratepayers with residential connections can foot this bill. . . . The increases will be dramatic, not like the year-to-year hikes. Their bills will go through the roof."

Graham rated the chances of getting federal funding as bleak. As vice chairman of Metro's Board of Directors, he tried to get aid for the transit system for 10 years but with little success: "And this is when 55 percent of Metro customers are federal employees," he said.

The irony: The D.C. government wasn't around 150 years ago, when the District's sewers were designed. The federal government was.

Who Is Responsible?

The oldest part of the District -- the center third, mostly developed before 1990 -- has only one drain system for sewage and storm water. In normal conditions, the mixture goes to WASA's Blue Plains facility and, after treatment, into the Potomac River. But in heavy rain, the older sewers flood, sending raw sewage and storm water from 53 outlets into D.C. waterways -- 15 dump into the Anacostia River, 10 into the Potomac and 28 into Rock Creek.

Each year, the waterways receive an average of 2 billion gallons, WASA figures show. It winds up in the Chesapeake Bay, disrupting its ecology and fisheries.

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