Digesting DC's Wastewater


there are gateways and gateways

DC's Department of Transportation, the city's official decorators, landscapers, and public entertainers, are currently planning twenty-seven (27) impressive "gateways" wherever a road, avenue, freeway or bike trail crosses the District line, and again wherever they cross the Anacostia River into the real capital city. One can easily visualize twenty-seven (27) combinations of stone pillars, shrubbery, dying flowers, and litter of all kinds, framed by weathered but welcoming messages and smiling photographs of Marion Barry. There may well soon be an annual Sleaziest Gateway Prize.

But wait! There will soon be a twenty-eighth (28th) entry in the So You Want A Real Gateway Competition. And this one will be brought to you by Washington's Own Water And Sewer Authority (WASA), pronounced like, but never to be confused with, wasa bread.. As fancy- schmancy gateways go, this one is likely to be a real winner, and provide more than food for the soul. It will surely bring grist for the nation's comics, political cartoonists, and late night talk shows.

history of WASA

Washington's original reservoir and aqueduct system was designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers. "Washington Aqueduct" began operations in 1859, and served the entire original territory of DC, even though Alexandria (and Arlington) opted out in 1846. Only in 1938, some fifty years after the flush toilet came into wide urban use, did Congress establish a DC Water and Sewer Authority and make it a semi-autonomous regional entity. It still delivers (and takes back) water from the Washington Aqueduct for about 500,000 paying customers in DC and Virginia.

Perhaps more interesting, WASA now also treats (an interesting choice of words) the wastewater from 1,600,000 paying customers in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. In this case it is apparently more blessed to receive than to give, and certainly more remunerative. The Authority now routinely processes nearly 400 million gallons of wastewater daily, but with a peak capacity over a billion. This requires a fluid transportation system of 1300 miles of pipe, 36,000 valves, and 8700 hydrants, to say nothing of five pumping stations, five reservoirs, and four elevated storage tanks. By comparison, DDoT has less that 1200 miles of roadways, and only about 1300 traffic lights. The Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, on the eastern bank of the Potomac in Ward 8, just above the Wilson Bridge, is the largest "advanced" facility of its kind in the entire world.

visualizing what the future could bring

Try this on for size. Whisk your foreign dignitaries, your key lobbyists, your industrial poobahs, and your wealthy tourists directly from Andrews Air Force Base, Dulles or RR National Airports to National Harbor and settle them into nice, spacious, modern VIP accommodations on the east bank of the Potomac River outside quaint Oxon Hill, Maryland. At nightfall, DC will send an admiral's barge from its period Navy Yard, and several dazzling new water taxis, suitably decked out with bunting, down to the harbor to pick them up. With fireboats spewing black Potomac river water to port and starboard, this ceremonial flotilla will glide northward under the new Wilson Bridge, appropriately closed to traffic, of course.

And then, with suitable anthems blaring, the flotilla will slow down to allow an unhurried vista of the nation's broadest, tallest, shiniest digestive sewage disposal plant. There will be no mistaking its eight stunning, award-winning one hundred-foot high, egg-shaped, aluminum clad, fermentation stills (man-made stomachs, really) reaching into the night sky beside another four equally large storage silos (bladders?). Brightly lit by spotlights, and topped by a blazing eternal flame of methane gas, they will symbolize American creativity in finding a globally-acceptable end-use for its best-known (and most-feared) product. DC will, in fact, have found a way to "eat it" and keep it away from the fan. And the reclaimed water will swirl downstream beneath the admiring VIPs. A simplified artist's (NARPAC's) sketch shows the general layout as it may look from a floating restaurant boat on the Potomac:

Benjamin Forgey, the Washington Post's world-renowned architectural critic has praised these crock pots for not only being undisguised and starkly functional, but because "they'll be beautiful, in their way, and almost magical, maybe, at night". You bet. Suman Sorg, the new plant's external architect, is particularly proud of the "slimming effect" produced by the delicate laciness of the bridgework connecting the "bottle caps" of each container. He thinks these trusses will have the "same effect as a necklace or garland on a not-so-slender lady". NARPAC thinks the slenderization metaphor would be pithier if the tanks were liposuction vats. To provide a sense of scale, the sketch below superimposes a modern Navy frigate (FFG-7 class) in front of the digesters. It is some 450 feet long, displaces over 4,000 tons, and its truss-work mast is not quite 100 feet above the water line:

These Perry-class ships were "designed from the keel up as total warfare systems, capable of operating independently or as an integral part of a carrier or surface action group". Some of these ships now operate in a counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism role, and routinely carry two helicopters on their aft deck. Of particular interest here, this naval design was one of the first to adopt new EPA rules which require retaining onboard all the wastewater generated by its 300 crew members while at sea. The ship has sufficient capacity for several months until it can be offloaded to a suitable treatment plant. (Aha!, another source of income for Blue Plains?, and/or another potential use for digesters?).

Two ships of this class were heavily damaged in the Persian Gulf in 1987 and 1988. FFG-31 was hit and heavily damaged by two Exocet anti-ship missiles. FFG-58 struck a mine which blew a nine-foot hole under its keel. Both ships survived and have been repaired. The safety of the accumulated wastewater aboard was not disclosed, but the US is unlikely to have asked for its repatriation under the circumstances.

irresistable temptations

It is inconceivable to NARPAC that these enormous repetitive stationary mechanical organs will not eventually require some decoration if only for important occasions and visitations, as well and to celebrate key American values and policies. An annual nationwide contest would be appropriate if DC elects a government with a sense of humor or the absurd. Meanwhile, we set to work our Department of Symbolic Graffiti and are pleased to suggest the following potential themes:

the Age of Terrorism and Evildoers

As an expression of truly foolhardy bravado, these super honey-pots would be the perfect containers on which to paint "bring 'em on" bullseyes. They would form an ideal 21st Century shooting gallery and offer proof that we are not afraid of being sitting ducks. We would even be daring the most primitive of malcontents to convert their clean shoulder-fired rockets into very dirty bombs on delivery.

On the other hand, we might also be able to further aggravate (or discourage) the world's disaffected by demonstrating that FEMA has already procured (non-competitively) eight replacement capital domes by which to hasten recovery from any dastardly act:

And, as the deterrent to end all deterrents, we could celebrate the burying of non-conforming terrorists up to their ski masks in the world's largest, and strictly American, waste detention facility, and with no legal recourse:

On the other hand, we could also demonstrate America's keen sense of history by immortalizing the headgear of some of history's most adventuresome crusaders:

the American Dream

How better to impress first-time visiting dignitaries with our unmatched wealth and willingness to squander it than to express our unparalleled success with bags of gold, and golden goose eggs? These displays should be emphasized particularly during World Bank sessions and, of course, the demonstrations always associated with them:

Nothing is more important to the American dream than our democratic principles and our various symbols of political jurisdictions. Congressional elections are major events, and DC's digester vats should surely be decorated for the occasion. To the best of NARPAC's collective knowledge, the Congress does not have its own flag, flower, bird, or fruit. If there was a Congressional fruit, however, we think it should be the pineapple. It's very difficult to tell if the fruit is ripe when you pick it, and it doesn't ripen any more after being picked:

Presidential elections are of even greater interest, and often, fickleness. As part of presidential inauguration festivities, we might invert one vessel and produce the world's largest "hour"glass, designed to drain out its symbolic material in precisely four years (8766 hours). The capital equivalent of New York's Times Square crystal globe, it would frequently evoke the same boundless joy when a presidential term is over.

Global Responsibilities

Our current national dismissal of Global Warming could be symbolized by snowmen (and, of course, women), and/or giant igloos. If the current administration's view turns out to be wrong, these decorations could be caused to melt away under the heat of the exothermic microbial reactions within.

Similarly, our present national indifference to the plight of endangered species could be reflected in yet another gateway spectacular. What could be more appropriate than to capture the annual trudge of the Emperor Penguins to their Antarctic mating caucus?

National Capital Pride

The District of Columbia is, of course, much more than home to the US Federal Government. It is also the permanent home of half a million residents, and the temporary home for millions of tourists and other visitors. Perhaps Macy's or Bloomingdale's would help offset the costs of waste treatment by showing off their wares: a prized livingroom lamp to immortalize the typical DC household; a delicate birdcage to fascinate the city's children; or even a water jug to reflect the hospitality of DC's many fine hotels:

Nothing is more important to capital residents than their Redskins, and although the football team's stadium is outside the city limits, the fans' enthusiasm knows no such boundaries. Perhaps the teams's owner, Dan Snyder, will adopt a vat for each winning season!

Finally, the nation's capital is also home to the world's wealthiest lobbyists, and what better symbols of their ability to disperse largesse, than perfume and chianti?

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This page was updated on August 15, 2006



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