Along the Potomac, which crosses the Atlantic coast of the United States, tourist boats have returned, some sports enthusiasts venture out on paddleboards, defying the current of the still murky but no longer foul-smelling waters. Many people are once again enjoying the riverbanks around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Social media is abuzz with photos of bald eagles, bottlenose dolphins, and whales near the river’s mouth, celebrating the return of colonies absent for decades. Like a postcard from another time, the Nation’s River seems to be coming back to life after a long, arduous journey due to pollution.
The Potomac River is rich in American history. It originates from two branches in the highlands of West Virginia and flows for 405 miles (652 km) until it reaches the Chesapeake Bay, passing through Washington, D.C., and marking the border between Virginia and Maryland for the rest of its journey to the sea. It is the fourth-largest river along the Atlantic coast and the 21st largest in the United States. According to the Census, over 5 million people live within its watershed. Its official name, dating back to 1930, is derived from the Patawomeke tribe, Native Americans who inhabited the region since pre-colonial times.
From Washington to Johnson, the Potomac’s gradual worsening
Designated as the Nation’s River for being chosen in 1790 as the location to build the capital and government of the United States by the first President George Washington, who was born and raised in those valleys, the nation’s river experienced significantly worse moments in the centuries that followed. Washington, according to the White House archives, wrote in 1793, commenting on his property in that area, that “no estate in the United States is more pleasantly situated than this. It lies in a high dry country 300 miles by water from the sea and, as you will see by the plan, on one of the finest rivers in the world.” President Lyndon Johnson declared the Potomac a “national disgrace” in 1965.
“Two hundred years ago George Washington used to stand on his lawn down here at Mount Vernon and look on a river that was clean and sweet and pure. In our own century President Theodore Roosevelt used to go swimming in the Potomac. But today the Potomac is a river of decaying sewage and rotten algae,” Johnson added, sounding the alarm to the legislators of the time who, in 1972, under President Nixon’s administration, passed the famous Clean Water Act, the primary law in the United States to prevent and resolve water pollution, effectively the country’s first major environmental law.
In the following 50 years, the river was declared unfit and prohibited for swimming, fishing, or other recreational activities along its banks. It was deemed a real health hazard, with toxicity levels exceeding limits, far from being used as a source of drinking water by residents. The Potomac was devastated by decades of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and harmful bacteria, exacerbated by periodic heavy rains that cause its tributaries, such as the Anacostia River, to overflow with sewage.
The new course of the Clean River Project DC
The efforts of state and federal administrations led, a few years ago, to the decisive launch of the Clean River Project DC, which involved important construction companies, including Webuild through its American subsidiary The Lane Construction Corporation. The project, which is expected to be completed by 2030 but has already achieved significant milestones, aims to reduce sewage overflow and capture and clean stormwater before it reaches the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek rivers.
Within the Clean River program, the Anacostia River Tunnel project, entrusted to Webuild-Lane, was completed at the end of 2017. The tunnel, which immediately entered service as a primary component of the long-term control plan, has already helped increase the capacity of the District of Columbia’s sewer system. Immediate benefits have been observed in the waters of the Anacostia, where swimming bans were lifted in July of this year.
Another essential component of the program, if not the most important, is the Northeast Boundary Tunnel (NEBT), conceived as a long-term solution recommended by the municipal task force to prevent flooding. It is a large and deep sewer tunnel that will increase the wastewater system’s capacity in the District. It will also contribute to improving the water quality of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. Constructed between 50 and 160 feet (15-48 meters) underground, it will run for 27,000 feet (8.3 km) beneath the streets of the capital. Excavation was completed in April 2020, and it is expected to become operational in September of this year.