Sewage Overflow Shuts Capital Crescent Trail

Photo by Brian Kapur/The Current
The Capital Crescent Trail has been closed since last Wednesday after 5 million gallons of overflow sewage spilled across it.
The Capital Crescent Trail has been closed since last Wednesday after 5 million gallons of overflow sewage spilled across it.

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

A major sewage spill last week continues to impact the D.C. stretch of the Capital Crescent Trail, as the city works on cleanup efforts.

Last Wednesday’s spill of about 5 million gallons of overflow sewage also affected the Potomac River and a portion of the C&O Canal. Both of those bodies of water have now been cleared as sanitary, according to officials.

The off-road Capital Crescent Trail, however, remains closed between Fletcher’s Cove and Water Street in Georgetown. The trail, known as one of the most heavily used in the nation, is popular not only for exercise and recreation but also as a major bike commuter link between Maryland and the District.

“We’re cautioning the public to expect the closure to last for several weeks while [the trail] is cleaned up appropriately and made safe for the public,” said Jenny Azelmo-Sarles, spokesperson for the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over the D.C. portion of the trail going into Georgetown.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority is in charge of that work, which “involves cleaning up solid waste and sanitizing the area,” according to Azelmo-Sarles. Authorities are applying “an extra level of precaution,” she said, because the trail’s users face more direct exposure than, say, motorists.

“People are hiking, walking, biking, running, bringing their kids and dogs,” she said. “This is not something that people are going to want to be tracking into their homes. It’s not just on the tires of their cars.”

John Lisle, spokesperson for the city’s water agency (also known as DC Water), said cleanup began last week after a plan was approved by the Park Service.

“We have completed the majority of the cleanup,” Lisle wrote in an email, “but are still working on some mitigation measures in coordination with NPS.”

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the trail closure “is impacting [bike] commuters, so it’s a bit of a problem.”

But Farthing said a parallel trail on the C&O Canal towpath offers “a relatively good workaround,” and he also expressed confidence that the city and Park Service are working quickly on solutions.

The spill happened late in the day April 30, during record-breaking rains. A rupture in a large interceptor sewer caused “an estimated 5 million gallons of combined sewage to overflow into the Potomac River,” running first over portions of the Capital Crescent Trail, according to DC Water.

Authorities cautioned the public to avoid contact with the Potomac River — an advisory that was lifted Monday, according to Azelmo-Sarles.

Lisle said his agency is “still investigating the cause” of the sewer line break, which appears related to the failure of an inflatable dam at a combined sewer outfall of the Potomac. The sewer system — installed in the late 1800s — is designed to operate during heavy rainfall. But in this case combined sewage “backed up and surcharged, spilling out in several locations, including a junction vault near Foundry Branch Tunnel, and from preexisting breaks in what we call the Upper Potomac Interceptor — a section of pipe that is out of service,” Lisle wrote.

The problem conflated when untreated sewage overflowed from a manhole into part of the C&O Canal on Friday night. Though activities on the canal towpath were allowed to continue as normal, authorities warned the public not to use the canal itself for fishing or recreation below Lock 6. That warning was lifted on Sunday, according to Azelmo-Sarles.

Jennifer Chavez, an attorney for Earthjustice, said the bigger picture is that the outdated, overtaxed D.C. sewer system can’t be sustained. “The similar common thread is that the District and [DC Water] have not kept up with the infrastructure, and they need to, and that’s just showing in so many ways across the city,” she said. “This is just one of the latest examples.”

“Clearly this is a big deal that they close down the Capital Crescent Trail due to ... to health reasons,” said Hedrick Belin of the Potomac Conservancy. For the waterways, he said, the event marks “a step backward for a healthy, vibrant Potomac River” and, by extension, the Chesapeake Bay.

According to Lisle with DC Water, the spill was not the only consequence of last week’s epic rainfalls. Overall, he wrote, “an estimated 215 million gallons of combined sewage was discharged into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and Rock Creek during those incredible rains.”

While “there are certainly risks” to those bodies of water, he wrote, “that would have been true whether or not we had the sewer break.”

Lisle also noted that these broader problems are exactly the focus of the DC Clean Rivers Project, a long-term plan to address sewage overflows into local waterways. Currently the agency is floating a plan to invest $90 million into “green infrastructure” solutions like green roofs and rain barrels.

More information about the Clean Rivers initiative is available at dcwater.com/cleanrivers.

This article appears in the May 7 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.