View of the Anacostia River from Yards Park, Washington DC

Water is one of the necessary conditions of life on this planet. That simple fact, along with the important trade routes moving water provides, is why the first human settlements were built along rivers and coasts. It is the only force large enough to give form to the sprawling metropolises that dot the Earth’s landscape. But these days there is a conflict inherent in our civilization’s relationship with its most precious resource. And this conflict runs deep.

Situated between two rivers, the Potomac and Anacostia, it is important that Washington, D.C. finds a way to reconcile this conflict. The endeavor is one of the most important tasks facing the city in the coming decades, and it will only become more so as the effects of climate change worsen. But the problem is not only related to the rising tides and diminishing water supplies climate change will bring about – there are already a number of problems the city is facing.

Map of Washington DC floodplain

The rivers of the region have already been contaminated due to centuries of development patterns and human activities that have ignored the fragility of hydrological processes. The Combined Sewer Overflow system (CSO), for instance, pumps raw sewage into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in the event of an over capacity storm event, and this happens several times a year. There are also submerged creeks that infrastructure and monuments have been built on top of, meaning that many important national symbols and institutions are lying in a floodplain. As Hurricane Sandy showed us when it ravaged the eastern seaboard, our cities are not prepared for storms of such intensity.

In a city as built out as D.C. is, finding ways to restore natural systems and achieve greater harmony with our resources can be a difficult task, but the D.C. Government is moving in a positive direction. Perhaps the boldest action is taking place in the realm of D.C. Water’s operations. Previous plans for massive tunnels providing temporary storage for excess water in the case of extreme storm events are being reconsidered in favor of green infrastructure. This approach provides additional capacity to help prevent flooding, and also filters the water using natural systems to reduce the volume of contaminated runoff entering our rivers. There is also a flood plan to protect the National Mall by building a levee on 17th Street that would block floodwaters from crossing into the core areas of the mall and downtown, but the project has stalled.

While urban planning initiatives like these are important to ensure that the District’s relationship with its surrounding water resource improves, it is also vital to keep an eye on the future as climate change’s uncertain impacts will almost certainly exacerbate some of the problems we have already recognized.

But in a fully developed city is there a way to ever achieve complete harmony with water? Is restoring the hydrological systems of a region to their natural state really a viable option, or should the built environment take precedence?

Credits: Images and Maps by Chase Keenan. Data linked to sources.