Exploring DC Water
Smithsonian Gardens’ Green Team had a unique opportunity to visit the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant (AWTP) owned and operated by Washington, D.C.’s Water and Sewer Authority or DC Water. Serving the District and nearby suburbs, the plant takes in more than 330 million gallons of raw sewage daily.
We had the pleasure of meeting with General Manager George Hawkins before getting a tour of the facility. After just a few minutes spent with Mr. Hawkins you could immediately appreciate not only his vast knowledge but his passion for what he does. He touched upon several aspects of DC Water, from its many large construction projects to its water treatment process to sustainability.
The Washington Aqueduct provides the public water supply system serving Washington, D.C., and parts of nearby suburbs and is run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. DC Water takes wastewater and runs it through cleaning processes using mechanical, chemical and biological methods like screening, aeration, polymer use and bacterial digestion. Once cleaned to EPA standards, this treated water is then put back into the Potomac River and the cycle begins once again.
One way DC Water is becoming more sustainable is with a huge construction project to further the biosolids management program with a Thermal Hydrolysis Process (THP) and digestion facility. Once completed, the project will not only be the largest of its kind in the world, but also save DC Water around $10 million a year in energy costs and cut its usage by a third. (DC Water is currently the largest consumer of electricity in the District.) It will also reduce the amount of carbon emissions by approximately 50,000 metric tons yearly. DC Water hopes to have the process up and running by July 2014.
George Hawkins actively looks for ways for DC Water to be more sustainable instead of simply taking the tried and true (easier) way out. Currently, any excess water generated during a large rain event that the facility can’t handle overflows into the city’s rivers. DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project is a colossal undertaking that will help alleviate that issue; a huge cistern-like cavity is currently being built to gradually treat storm-water that overwhelms the system. George also sees other ways of dealing with excess water, such as a push for individuals and the government on all levels to build bioswales, green roofs and rain gardens to help mitigate the problem.
One way the public can help be more water smart is by drinking more tap water instead of using bottled water. To this end, DC Water is directly involved with a project called TapIt that is also found in other cities. TapIt enables you to locate eateries (via internet search, iPhone app, or restaurants labeled with a TapIt sticker) that will let you bring your own water bottle and fill it for free.
DC Water hopes someday to become net zero for energy consumption meaning it would produce energy equal to or more than its daily needs. With future plans to double the Thermal Hydrolysis Process and digestion facility and talks of installing solar panels, DC Water thinks it can achieve this lofty goal. If everyone uses water more consciously and tries to alleviate polluting through trash and water runoff we can make D.C.’s rivers a major highlight of the city.
-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist