History of Sewer System

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

The District of Columbia'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.

By 1850, most of the streets along Pennsylvania Avenue 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 citywide to the District of Columbia 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 to 1874, the Board of Public Works built 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 of Columbia was a combined system that carried and discharged both sanitary sewage and stormwater into local waterways. In the 1890s, there was considerable difference of opinion among engineers about whether the District of Columbia should keep such a system.

A Board of Engineers appointed by President Benjamin Harrison recommended that the combined system be retained, but that extensions be built to serve new areas, 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 city area. This discharge point is still located at Blue Plains, the southernmost tip of the District of Columbia. 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 today's current sewage system.

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