by Jeff Seltzer
Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers are beloved environmental treasures. However, District residents and visitors cannot fully enjoy our local waterbodies as they routinely fall below water quality standards established to protect people and natural habitat.
The degradation of the District’s waters occurred over several centuries as the traditional methods of development didn’t respect water as a vital natural resource. Nearly 43 percent of the land area in the District is covered with paved surfaces such as rooftops, roads, and driveways that were designed to convey stormwater runoff to the nearest waterway as quickly as possible. This stormwater runoff erodes streambanks, topples trees, buries aquatic habitat with sediment, and carries harmful pollutants like pet waste, oil, fertilizers, metals sediment and litter into our rivers and streams. Water quality monitoring has found organic pollutants, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) in Soapstone Creek.
Historically, 90 percent of the District rain events have produced less than 1.2 inches of rainfall. With climate change we are experiencing larger storm events more frequently. This will only exacerbate the environmental problems associated with stormwater runoff.
The Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) is working hard to improve the quality of the District’s waterbodies and is a national leader in policies and programs to more effectively manage stormwater runoff. A key component of these efforts is to retrofit paved surfaces with green infrastructure (GI) to capture and filter stormwater runoff.
The use of GI also has ancillary benefits including a reduced heat island effect, improved air quality, additional habitat, neighborhood beautification and the creation of green jobs. Types of GI that are commonly used in the District include the installation of green roofs, rain gardens and roadside bio-retention, which involves the removal of paved surfaces and planting trees.
Importantly, the use of GI is also a federal mandate for the District under the Clean Water Act’s stormwater permitting program. Between June 2018 and June 2023, the District must effectively retrofit over 1,000 acres of paved surfaces with GI practices that retain stormwater in areas served by the municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4 – see graphic below).
This mandate is a collective obligation for District residents and requires the use of our public space (such as roads, schools and parks) where possible to manage runoff.
To meet this goal, DOEE enforces regulations that require public and private projects to install GI and leverages federal grants to fund retrofits. (Explore this map to see where and what types of GI have been installed throughout the District.) Most regulated projects are required to capture stormwater runoff from a 1.2-inch rain event using GI.
There is an ongoing project close to Forest Hills in DC’s Barnaby Woods neighborhood: the Oregon Avenue Watershed Green Streets (one of the projects listed here). Its objective is to manage stormwater with a series of GI installations in the public right of way. The techniques include installing roadside bio-retention and repaving with pervious pavers.
The Oregon Avenue watershed project was designed to retain 84,044 gallons of stormwater runoff and treat another 61,444 gallons. The retained water is held by the materials and plantings in bioretention areas and dispersed through evapotranspiration. The treated runoff filters through soil media and ultimately flows to an underdrain.
As Deputy Director for the Natural Resources Administration at the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), Jeff Seltzer is responsible for programs that conserve, protect, and improve the water, soil, and living resources of the District of Columbia. Jeff is a Professional Civil Engineer with over 25 years of experience in environmental restoration, transportation and construction management. Jeff lives in the District with his wife and two children and looks forward to the day when his family and other residents can safely swim in the District’s rivers.