Historically, no Washingtonian would even think of taking a dip in our city’s rivers and waterways. Why? Since the 1900s, heavy rains have poured sewer overflows into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and Rock Creek, producing chronic pollution that harms wildlife and drives people away. The Clean Rivers Project, a massive system of tunnels combined with green infrastructure, is the solution. Mandated by a federal consent decree, the project will reduce annual combined sewer overflows by 96 percent throughout the system and by 98 percent for the Anacostia River alone. It will also prevent about 1 million pounds of nitrogen from discharging to the Chesapeake Bay every year.
But while the Clean Rivers Project will dramatically improve our city’s environment and help drive the continued resurgence of the District’s waterways, its cost is steep, estimated at $2.6 billion in 2005. Although the federal government imposed the requirement to implement this project, in 2017 D.C. Water received a $14 million federal appropriation for the Clean Rivers Project while spending $216 million to meet the project’s strict milestones and deadlines.
D.C. Water considered two main approaches to cover the funding gap. One approach was to include the cost of the Clean Rivers Project in the existing sewer rate. The alternative was to create a new fee based on the impervious cover on every parcel of land in the District. Impervious surfaces are hard surfaces — including paved areas, sidewalks and rooftops — that cause stormwater to run into storm drains, carrying harmful pollutants with it.
In 2008, D.C. Water’s board of directors decided to fund the project using a fee called the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge. That fee is the subject of current discussions, including Sean Kennedy’s Nov. 5 Local Opinions essay.
The D.C. Water Board is very concerned about the fairness of the rates and fees charged to our retail customers. Every customer in the District, including the federal government, pays the fee. The board also requires a comprehensive program to support low-income customers; this effort was expanded last year to reduce the charge by 50 percent. But concerns have been raised about the impact of the charge on some customers, particularly cemeteries and churches; these concerns are worthy of investigation. Some have even called for scrapping the charge, but that’s impossible. We are obligated by the terms of a federal consent decree to complete the Clean Rivers Project by 2030.
So D.C. Water is looking at how the CRIAC is applied to see if anyone is disproportionately affected. But the fixed cost of the Clean Rivers Project means that reducing the charges for one group of customers will increase the costs for everyone else.
The board and staff of D.C. Water are committed to a rate and fee structure that is fair to our customers and raises the necessary funds to undertake work that is vital to the health and well-being of our city and region.
Tommy Wells is chairman of the D.C. Water Board of Directors. George S. Hawkins is chief executive and general manager of D.C. Water.