Everything about D.C. Water’s Tunneling project is big, including the shipping-container-sized ‘muck’ box rising out of the ground at the entrance point to the tunnel system at Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant.
James Wonneberg, the resident engineer on the project, warns visitors that things could get a little messy. “You’ll get a little splatter here,” he says, as the box is tilted and mud sloshes into the back of a dump truck that will haul the dirt offsite.
Right now we’re still above ground at the top of a drop-shaft that measures 75 feet across, and ten stories down.
The drop-shaft is how D.C. Water crews got the tunnel-boring machine — or TBM — down into the ground to begin excavating what will eventually be a 13-mile tube.
Crew members make the descent in an orange metal cage.
“This is what we call the Alimak,” Wonneberg says as we head down. “It’s an elevator that’s gonna take us down to the bottom of the shaft where we can catch the train.”
The Alimak is a tight fit — six people can jam in, but it’s a little like standing in a coat closet.
Intermittent horns and buzzers tell crew members at the bottom of the drop-shaft when something is being lifted or lowered by the pulley — and for good reason: the ten-story drop means that even a falling clump of dirt could do serious harm.
Turns out many of the crew have worked together before. Ray Hashimee, the Assistant Resident Engineer, came with Wonneberg from another tunneling project in Seattle.
“The tunneling industry is a very niche group,” Hashimee says. “We’re like gypsies. We go from different place to place, and we all know each other.”
Jeffery Jenkins says he’s been working on underground projects in D.C. since 1988.
On this project he drives the Loki — short for locomotive. The small train is how just about everything — from people, to food, to the ten-ton concrete slabs that make up the wall of the tunnel — get in and out of the tunnel itself.
“Everything they get I bring to them,” Jenkins says.
The actual tunnel, which is currently lengthening northward, underneath the eastern side of the Potomac River, is 26-feet-wide.
The TBM — an engineering marvel — does all the heavy-lifting, chewing through the earth, sucking the mud backwards and onto a conveyor belt that runs parallel to the tracks that carry the loki. The TBM also presses the precast, ten-ton concrete slabs into place as it goes, creating the tunnel.
Wonneberg says while the technology is impressive. It’s also been around for a couple of decades now, and is widely used.
“There’s actually been a lot of these lately,” he says. “In the U.S. there’s probably 10 or 15 different tunnels being dug right now. Around the world, there’s hundreds.”
A Costly Fix
So far, the 400-foot-long machine — named the Lady Bird after President Lyndon Johnson’s environmentally-minded wife — has tunneled north more than 4,800 feet. It still has a few miles to go before completing what’s known as the Blue Plains phase of the tunnel, which will be 4.5 miles long.
“A second phase of this huge tunnel will start at RFK stadium and actually come south on the Anacostia,” says George Hawkins, D.C. Water’s general manager. “They’ll meet together near the Nationals ballpark. That’ll be the second phase. The third phase of the tunnel will start at RFK stadium and tunnel into the city to where Ledroit Park, Bloomingdale, that historic flooding has happened.”
Hawkins says most people who rely on modern water utilities rarely appreciate the engineering muscle and technological prowess required to get clean water to every faucet in a city, and keep dirty water out of local waterways.
He hopes this project will change that, and make people realize that water just might be an underpriced resource.
“Our view, in this industry, is that if we can describe and explain in a way that is meaningful and understandable to the people we serve, what their money is going towards, it’s our judgment that most of the people that we talk to — not willingly, no one willing writes out a bill — but at least accepts that this is a good investment because, my family, every living thing, human or otherwise, relies on clean drinking water,” he says.
And D.C. Water bills have had to go up to pay for the $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project, which includes not only the cost of the 13-mile Anacostia Water Tunnel, but also two additional tunnels planned for coming years.
In 2009, D.C. Water implemented an impervious area charge (IAC) for all customers to help pay for the Clean Rivers Project. The more impervious surface on your property — that would include most buildings or houses, and any blacktop or concrete — the more you’re contributing to stormwater runoff, and the more you pay. The average charge is an additional $12 each month.
The project will remove 98 percent of the combined sewage and stormwater (CSO) that flows into the Anacostia River, and 96 percent of the CSO that flows into the entire local water system, which includes the Potomac, Rock Creek, and smaller tributaries.
Is There a Cheaper and Greener Way?
But Hawkins says there may be an even better, and cheaper way to keep our rivers clean.
“One of the attributes of the tunnel is that it only works when you have a big enough rainstorm to cause the sewers to overflow. Otherwise it sits empty and is not doing anything at all, despite the expense.”
That’s why Hawkins and D.C. Water have gone back to the EPA with an alternative plan that would create a smaller second tunnel, and eliminate the need for a third tunnel altogether, by investing $60 million on things such as permeable pavement and green roofing to absorb more water runoff. The new plan would save the average customer about $400 a year.
“Green infrastructure provides benefits at every rainstorm,” Hawkins says. “It could be a sprinkling of water — and that would absorb it.”
For now, George Hawkins has to wait and see if the Department of Justice and EPA find the green infrastructure plan acceptable.
In the meantime, says Loki driver Jeffery Jenkins, the Anacostia Water Tunnel isn’t a bad place to be.
“They have it down to an art. It’s pretty neat,” Jenkins says.
The Burden on Urban Water Consumers
Hawkins says D.C. Water will comply with whatever the EPA and the Dept. of Justice decide — and will likely beat the deadlines imposed by the federal agencies.
But he also wants those agencies to take a close look at how the mandates under the Clean Water Act are working. Right now, the mandates generally apply only to “point sources” — single points of discharge such as water treatment plants.
“You look at where the improvements are coming to the [water quality flowing into the] Chesapeake Bay, it’s coming from Blue Plains and the inner-ring suburbs on urban and inner-ring suburban ratepayers,” Hawkins says. “We know most of the pollutants today — not 20 years ago, but today — are coming from runoff and agriculture and suburban developments much farther out. If we reduced the discharges from Blue Plains to zero, it now wouldn’t make much a difference to the Chesapeake because we’ve done so much already.”
Hawkins says he’s been raising questions about the fairness of going back to urban ratepayers time and time again and asking them to stomach rate hikes for marginal improvements in water quality.
“We know the big sources [of water pollution] are in the hinterlands,” he says. “If we do want to clean up the bay — it’s tough work to figure out how to [regulate] agricultural runoff or non-point-source runoff, but that’s where the action is, and if we don’t have at it, we’re never going to solve the problem.”
Music: "High Water" by Rush from Hold Your Fire