History of DC Water's Systems

History of Our Water System

Bryant Street Water Pumping Station, October 8, 1906
Bryant Street Water Pumping Station, October 8, 1906

Early settlers in the District of Columbia were dependent upon local springs for their water needs. Three downtown sections of the city were supplied by the following springs: the City Spring on the north side of C Street, NW, between 4th and 6th Streets; Caffery's Spring (or the Hotel Spring) at the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets, NW; another spring on the public space property located at 13th Street, NW, north of Eye Street; another further west, near the center of Franklyn Park, (now Judiciary Square); and, Smith Spring, now the McMillan Reservoir. Other springs provided water to existing neighborhoods at that time.

The earliest documented instance of water being piped throughout the D.C. streets for public use was in 1808. At that time, the city permitted residents living in the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, to "convey" water from the city spring to their neighborhood.

Rock Creek Park above Boulder Bridge showing treatment of creek crossing by low dam construction, August 27, 1912
Rock Creek Park above Boulder
Bridge showing treatment of creek crossing
by low dam construction, August 27, 1912

The first appropriation of public funds for a project to pipe water for residential use was on August 4, 1809, when the District of Columbia Government allocated three hundred dollars for pipe construction to convey water from Caffery's Spring to the northwestern Pennsylvania Avenue vicinity, specifically between 9th and 14th streets. The spring water piping systems were replaced and extended from year to year. By 1850, Pennsylvania Avenue, from First to 15th Streets, and to the north of Pennsylvania Avenue were supplied with pipes that were primarily used for public hydrants or "pumps". In only a few instances, the pipes provided service within private premises. However, by 1909, most spring lines had lost favor with residents and were replaced by new pipe extensions.

In 1850, the Potomac River was identified as the District's principal water source in a congressionally-funded engineering study to determine the most available mode of supplying water to the city. The majority of the work on the study was done under the leadership of Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs, who later served as Quartermaster General of the Army. Lt. Meigs is credited with planning and building the structures and facilities that became the Washington Aqueduct. Water first reached the District through the Water Aqueduct system on January 3, 1859.

Upper Rock Creek - Crossing at Broad Branch Ford and Rock Creek Park, 1912
Upper Rock Creek - Crossing at
Broad Branch Ford and
Rock Creek Park, 1912

As originally designed, the Washington Aqueduct system was believed to be sufficient for the future water needs of the city. However, by 1902, it was no longer adequate due to population growth and the need for a filtration system. Therefore, in 1905, a 75 million gallon per day (MGD) slow-sand plant was added at the McMillan Reservoir and the large Bryant Street high-lift pumping station was built. Following World War I, the area experienced another sharp increase in population and a new 80 MGD rapid-sand filter was built in Dalecarlia.

The continuous population growth of our nation's capital during World War II made it necessary to further expand the water supply system. On February 8, 1946, the District Engineer, the United States Engineering office, and the Engineer Commissioner of the District of Columbia submitted a joint report to Congress that contained comprehensive plans to construct, improve and add to the existing water system. For more than thirty years, implementation of the plan underwent periodic modifications through changing requirements and increases in necessary funding.

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History of Our Sewerage System

The District's sewerage system, one of the oldest in the United States, began around 1810, when sewers and culverts were constructed to safely drain storm and ground water from the streets. These drains were not all built at the same time, and were not linked together to form a "system" as we know it today.

Cleaning catch basins, August 1, 1922
Cleaning catch basins, August 1, 1922

By 1850, most of the streets along Pennsylvania Avenue, from First to 15th Street, had spring or well water piped in, thus creating the need for our first sanitary sewage process. Sewage was discharged into the nearest body of water. In 1859, the Washington Aqueduct was supplying river water city-wide to the District and this, together with the surge in population during the civil war, quickly created a marked increase in water pollution in the nation's capital. Before the end of the war, there were epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and malaria, which took many thousands of lives. These epidemics prompted the Federal Government to investigate the problem of sanitary sewage.

From 1871-1874, a general construction program was undertaken by the Board of Public Works, building approximately 80 miles of sewers. Although the amount of construction was impressive, much of the work was poorly planned, structurally unsound and hydraulically inadequate. As a result of the program and up until 1880, the foul conditions in the Washington canal and along B Street (now Constitution Avenue) were eliminated by the construction of the B Street and Tiber Creek Sewers and filling in the canal. However, the problem was transferred to the marshes along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

14th St. and Florida Ave., NW - Special gutter inlet, March 21, 1916
14th St. and Florida Ave., NW
- Special gutter inlet, March 21, 1916

Up to this time, the sewerage system that served the District was a combined system that carried and discharged both sanitary sewage and stormwater into localways. In the 1890's, there was considerable difference of opinion among engineers as to the desirability of retaining such a system.

A Board of Engineers appointed by President Benjamin Harrison recommended that the combined system be retained but, in addition, that extensions be built to serve new areas as a separate system, using separate lines to carry stormwater and sanitary flows. The Board also recommended that all the sewage flows be discharged at a point far enough down the Potomac River to prevent their return to the environs of the city. This discharge point is still located at Blue Plains, the southernmost tip of the District. Upon further recommendation from the Board, construction of a system of large interceptor sewers was undertaken to collect and carry sanitary sewage and some stormwater to a pumping station on the bank of the Anacostia River and to the discharge point at Blue Plains. The implementation of those recommendations accounts for the major portion of the current sewage system.

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History of Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant

Anacostia River near Stickfoot Branch - Outlet Stickfoot Branch Sewer, 1915
Anacostia River near Stickfoot Branch
- Outlet Stickfoot Branch Sewer, 1915

Wastewater treatment plants use such terms as "primary", "secondary", and "advanced", to indicate the level of treatment provided by each process. Primary treatment is the basic stage for removal of materials, which either float on top of the water or settle at the bottom of processing tanks and chambers to remove sedimentation. Secondary treatment is the process wherein bacteria absorb or feed on organic solids, which will not settle (suspended solids). Advanced treatment is any treatment process that improves the effluent quality of a secondary process. Advanced treatment processes remove phosphorous and nitrogen nutrients, which are adverse to river quality.

Map of Metropolitan District - Sewerage, 1911
Map of Metropolitan District
- Sewerage, 1911

When the wastewater treatment plant at Blue Plains opened in 1938, it was a primary treatment facility only. It was designed to serve a population of 650,000 people through the year 1950. The operating cost was less than $175,000 per year. At that time, the relatively small discharge from Blue Plains to the Potomac River was less than 100 million gallons per day (MGD).

As population and industry increased sharply in the District and surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties in the 1950's, primary treatment proved to be inadequate. In 1959, the Blue Plains plant was expanded to accommodate secondary treatment with a capacity of 240 MGD.

Flows continued to increase and, by 1969, the influent flow had exceeded the design capacity of Blue Plains once again. The District Government, with authorities from Maryland and Virginia, called a regional conference during which they agreed to expand the facility to increase its ability to meet the Federal Clean Water Act, mandated at that time.

Fleet of four basin cleaning trucks - Fords, March 15, 1924
Fleet of four basin cleaning trucks
- Fords, March 15, 1924

From 1970 through 1983, construction at Blue Plains expanded the secondary plant to an advanced wastewater treatment facility, processing more that 300 million gallons per day. Treatment levels were greatly improved in order to restore the Potomac River to recreational and commercial use.

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