by David Bardin
The venerable Committee of 100 for the Federal City has announced through its chairman, George Clark (of Forest Hills), that one of its five 2012 Vision Awards will go to a remarkable project. Here are excerpts from my nomination of RiverSmart Washington:
RiverSmart Washington is a partnership led by the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) that includes the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), DC Water, LimnoTech, Casey Trees, and Rock Creek Conservancy. The partnership is working to retrofit two areas of the Petworth and Chevy Chase neighborhoods in the District (totaling 27 acres) with attractive, low-cost, eco-friendly landscaping and innovative streetscaping in an effort to quantify how effective it can be at reducing polluted runoff into Rock Creek.
This groundbreaking project is the first in the nation to retrofit such an extensive area and monitor its effectiveness. If successful, the program may be replicated across the District and could have positive planning consequences. Previous DDOE projects with similar techniques have been used in each Ward, more intensively near the Pope Branch tributary to the Anacostia River, and have provided DDOE and its partners with much information that could be used in future plans. DDOE continues to promote these projects for individual residential, church, condo, and apartment properties via RiverSmart Homes and RiverSmart Communities but they do not involve the kind of monitoring and controlled before-and-after comparisons or the scale of RiverSmart Washington.
RiverSmart Washington is designed to evaluate how well eco-friendly techniques help to reduce runoff on a neighborhood scale. The project grew out of a study called the “Green Build-Out Model” by Casey Trees and LimnoTech that examined effectiveness of techniques, such as rain gardens, downspout disconnection, rain barrels, permeable pavement, and others in capturing the District’s rainwater. The model predicted that some areas could see much runoff captured if such techniques were widely implemented. Seeking to test the model’s predictions, DDOE’s Steve Saari first turned to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in late 2008, submitting a full grant application in 2009. The Foundation committed $800,000, which was later supplemented by close to $1 million each from DDOE, DDOT, and DC Water, in cash or in-kind, plus in-kind contributions from other partners.
RiverSmart Washington is evaluating modeled landscaping techniques in an area of Chevy Chase near Lafayette Elementary School, served by separate storm and sanitary sewers, as well as an area of Petworth near MacFarland Middle School, served by combined storm-and-sanitary sewers. The partnership is currently designing and installing dozens of small-scale runoff management techniques. Their installation will be complete by March of 2013 at which time the partners will measure their effectiveness in curbing flow of runoff in comparison to pre-implementation conditions (which were measured in 2011). The project relates rainfall in the neighborhoods (not Reagan National Airport) to local sewer flow, with or without these landscaping techniques implemented.
Together, MacFarland and Lafayette represent typical District residential neighborhoods. Therefore, the RiverSmart Washington study results could be replicated in neighborhoods across the District.
[box]Runoff from this study area drains into Piney Branch, a small creek that flows into Rock Creek from the east side of Rock Creek Park. As one of the older DC neighborhoods, Petworth has a combined sewer system — just a single pipe carries both wastewater and stormwater.
When it rains heavily, the single pipe is not big enough to handle the volume. Rather than have this combined water back up into homes and streets, the overflow is sent directly into Piney Branch, and on into Rock Creek. This combined sewer overflow (CSO) occurs every time there is anintense rainstorm – even less than one inch of rain![/box]
[box]The neighborhood drains into Broad Branch, a tributary of Rock Creek on the west side of Rock Creek Park. As one of the newer parts of the city, it is on the municipal separate storm system, with separate pipes carrying sewage and storm water.
The stream waters in Broad Branch are notable for dangerous flash floods, such as the one in August 2010 in which a driver leapt from his van and clung to a fence just before an eight-foot wall of water swept the van away.[/box]
To the extent deemed successful and worthwhile, landscaping techniques used in RiverSmart Washington may be expanded throughout DC to benefit all streams and rivers and neighborhoods. Potential benefits of widespread landscaping and streetscaping to manage stormwater include:
• Creating additional green space in our highly urbanized environment;
• Employing people to design, install, and maintain these features;
• Reducing pollution flowing to our local waterways;
• Cutting back costly investment for underground tunnels to store combined rainwater and sanitary sewage during a storm and then convey the polluted mixture to DC Water’s wastewater treatment plant in Ward 8.
RiverSmart Washington inspires innovation throughout the District. DC Water’s General Manager, George Hawkins, persuaded his Board of Directors to let him invest $1 million in RiverSmart Washington because of its potential for inspiring change. He is also currently negotiating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to support replications of RiverSmart Washington’s innovation in more parts of DC (at least as rigorously, in order to address skepticism of engineers and traditional regulators about efficacy of landscaping-type solutions) and devising ways to modify reliance on costly, single-purpose storage tunnels in favor of the multi-purpose approach that RiverSmart Washington is proving out.
RiverSmart Washington is sensitive to neighborhoods, planning principles, public space, and transportation needs. Its vision is truly transformative, in planning, design, community outreach and participation, and professional monitoring and implementation – a vision one can see in the appended links to hand-outs and references from the Lafayette and MacFarland outreach.
For further information:
RiverSmart Washington is described and illustrated with text, maps, photos, diagrams, references, outreach presentations, and an excellent photo gallery at Rock Creek Conservancy’s web site.
Particularly note links at that web page to the plans and presentations available at DDOT.dc.gov. Click on the button labeled “documents.”
As a DC Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) board member (2001-2011), David Bardin
hoped that the “green infrastructure” sometimes called low-impact development (LID) could play a significant role in ameliorating storm water impacts in DC. Bardin served on a group of advisers when Casey Trees and LimnoTech developed their Green Build-Out Model (PDF file), with an EPA grant, to estimate how far LID might go in DC. He prepared this nomination (with lots of help) and submitted it in April to the Committee of 100 of the Federal City Council.