Washington, D.C. – Protecting the Chesapeake Watershed

Anacostia River

Anacostia River. Credit: Timothy Vollmer

In 2008, 39 percent of the District was covered with impervious surface.[1] This plays a role in the combined sewage overflows of 1.5 billion gallons into the city’s Anacostia River and 850 million gallons into the Potomac River each year.[2] Taking the lead on addressing this issue is the District Department of the Environment (DDOE).

DDOE is responsible for administering the District’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit — more commonly referred to as a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Permit.[3] This permit regulates what kind of and how much discharge is allowable into the District’s various waterways. To stay in compliance with the permit and improve the health of the city’s waterways, DDOE has implemented a number of incentive programs to encourage green infrastructure and stormwater reduction.

In fall 2007, DDOE launched its RiverSmart Homes program to involve District homeowners in stormwater management. Through RiverSmart Homes, DDOE covers up to $1,200 in green infrastructure enhancements — rain barrels, rain gardens, large shade trees, impervious surface replacements and native landscaping — for approved homes to reduce stormwater runoff.[4] The program has been readily adopted by city residents, as the wait time for an initial audit by a DDOE inspector to see if your home qualifies and which improvements are recommend is between three and four months.[5] The program has also expanded to the District’s schools, with RiverSmart Schools offering schoolyard greening projects that teach gardening skills while improving a school’s green areas.[6]

View of the U.S. Capitol from the Potomac River

View of the U.S. Capitol from the Potomac River. Credit: F Delventhal

For those spaces where yard adaptations may not be possible, DDOE is encouraging homeowners and building owners to install green infrastructure on their roofs with its Green Roof Rebate Program. In 2012, the rebate program offered $5 per square foot capped at 5,000 square feet. The program began in 2007, and the District estimates that the city now has 75 green roofs covering approximately 350,000 square feet.[7]

Another aspect of the city’s MS4 permit is a focus on functional landscaping: “The District encourages developers through training sessions and preliminary design review to incorporate functional landscaping techniques in their site development plans.”[8] As part of this work, the District Department of Transportation reviews all development and construction site plans that impact rights of way to look for ways to reduce impervious surfaces, increase space for trees and reduce stormwater runoff. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, UFA received more than $4 million to remove paving, expand tree boxes and create new tree planting sites. Decreasing impervious surface is where the District and other cities will see major gains in canopy coverage over time.

With all of these various programs in place to help support urban forest work, the District is headed in the right direction for a healthy, sustainable forest well into the future. But in a city where different entities control different tracts of land, coordination will be the key to continuing success. “We have streets where UFA has trees on one side of the street, and on other side, they’re managed by the Architect of the Capitol,” says UFA’s Thomas. “We’re constantly looking at boundaries and where the lines are. Who maintains what? And everyone seems to have a different strategy. It just means we have to have open communication and constant communication with the other entities.”

Cooperation and open dialogue are essential to the city’s continued fight to protect and restore its urban forest because while district, federal and private partners have been converging for years to build and maintain the city’s urban forest, this work will continue for years to come: “Change happens over generations,” says Casey Trees’ Buscaino.

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[1] The Urban Institute. State of Washington, D.C.’s Neighborhoods 2010. http://www.urban.org/uploadedpdf/412333-state-of-DC-neighborhoods.pdf (accessed Sept. 19, 2012).

[2] District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. News & Publications. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority Combined Sewer Overflow Control Activities Biannual Report October 2012. http://www.dcwater.com/news/publications/CSO_Oct_2012_web.pdf (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).

[3] The District of Columbia. District Department of the Environment. Stormwater Management. http://ddoe.dc.gov/stormwater (accessed Sept. 19, 2012).

[4] The District of Columbia. District Department of the Environment. RiverSmart Homes – Success Stories. http://ddoe.dc.gov/service/riversmart-homes-success-stories (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).

[5] Bolin, B. Stormwater Program Nears Reality in Prince George’s. Greater Greater Washington. 2012. http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/15273/stormwater-program-nears-reality-in-prince-georges/ (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).

[6] The District of Columbia. District Department of the Environment. RiverSmart Schools. http://ddoe.dc.gov/service/riversmart-schools (accessed Sept. 19, 2012).

[7] The District of Columbia. District Department of the Environment. Green Roofs int eh District. http://ddoe.dc.gov/greenroofs (accessed Sept. 21, 2012).

[8] The District of Columbia. District Department of the Environment. Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System NPDES Permit No. DC0000221 Annual Report August 19, 2011. http://ddoe.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ddoe/publication/attachments/2011%20Annual%20Report%20Final.pdf (accessed Sept. 19, 2012).