A rising Potomac: oh, dam it

30m sea level rise along the Potomac

30 meters of sea level rise would wipe out most of the L’Enfant City, put the White House underwater, and leave the Capitol on a little island — but it could still be managed by damming the Potomac River at key locations, like Quantico or Mason Neck.

Of the world’s major coastal-plain cities, Washington, Rio, and London are among the few that could conceivably be saved by damming estuaries, although I’m sure the Japanese will still try.

The same can’t be said for Philadelphia, where the Delaware has a very broad valley, or even New York, where dams at Verrazano Narrows and Arthur Kill will have to be supplemented by very extensive construction to block Long Island Sound. Boston either becomes an archipelago or a polder at a mere 7m of SLR. Even Montreal faces serious property loss over 20m; at 30m Beijing becomes coastal and tides could reach Lake Champlain and the Caspian sea.

Much more than 30m, like the 60m these guys have in mind, and most everything on the east coast below the fall line would be gone. Even dams at the Golden Gate and St. John’s would no longer protect San Francisco or Portland. That’s when inland real estate might become rather more valuable.

Surprisingly, my river-view apartment should be okay up to +10m or so even without a downstream barrier.

Generated using flood.firetree.net/

[Posted to Flickr on 12 June 2012, but today's Antarctic ice sheet news reminded me that I never cross-posted it here.]

Three local leaders’ perspectives on pivoting toward sustainability

I found some quotes I’d scribbled down from a New Republic event last December (link has streamable video of the entire event) about how state and local governments are responding to climate change. The first panel, in particular, had a refreshing focus on the built environment, thanks to two remarkable mayors who truly understand the value of building sustainable communities.

Jim Brainard, Mayor of Carmel, Indiana:

“Land is inexpensive [here], so it’s easy for lenders to say, ‘let’s just build sprawl.’ But cities end up having to support all that infrastructure: for instance, it costs $7 million to upgrade a mile of road.”

“The real challenge is in the suburban development pattern areas. We threw out 10,000 years of city planning expertise… The new cities of the last 50 years frankly don’t work so well.”

On how Carmel financed the higher cost of downtown development, including structured parking: “Developers, in my experience, are quite willing to build anything they think they can make money on. We reached out very purposefully to the lending community, brought them into the discussion. It got a lot easier [once they realized that] you can borrow against that added [capital] cost, because it adds value in the end.” (Here’s a photo tour of downtown and some new neighborhoods; as with a lot of greenfield NU, the architecture could be better, but at least the urban design is well-informed.)

Bob Dixson, Mayor of Greensburg, Kansas — a gem of a speaker who seriously deserves to be on the lecture circuit.

Reframing sustainability: “The right, prudent, and responsible thing to do for future generations, so that future generations can experience the same great nation that we have.”

“Are you a renter of your community or an owner? Will someone else take care if it for you or will you step up and volunteer? Are we going to own our issues or just rent them, and expect Pennsylvania Avenue to take care of it?”

“We can get back to being front porch people and have true conversations. The best way to prepare for a disaster is to have conversations and community.”

“We had all those [standard engineering] manuals in city hall, but then the wind came and blew all those manuals away.”

Bill Ritter, Former Governor of Colorado and Director, Center for the New Energy Economy, Colorado State University

“The people of the West actually favor the EPA, it’s just that their representatives don’t.”

“Vast pools of private capital are waiting on the sidelines because of policy uncertainty. Putting a price on coal at the state level will create certainty, but instead [Congress] will keep debating it and create more uncertainty.”

“I don’t think that a lawsuit is a constructive thing against Kentucky. Are there coal lessons to be learned from other [rural] transition economies, like tobacco?”

Perhaps big changes to utility regulations are easier than small ones: ” ‘We don’t want to work against you, utilities, we want to work with you.’ Could public[ly owned] utilities lead the way? We need to redesign how we rate-base those things that you want us to do.”

How would a carbon tax affect DC?

Nature's fuel

The right thing in climate policy for all the big countries is a carbon tax, which is simpler and less vulnerable to fluctuations in emissions than cap-and-trade schemes.” – The Economist

A recent discussion spawned the idea of implementing a carbon tax within DC, and so I wrote up this brief.

What and whom would a carbon tax affect?
A carbon tax, technically a tax upon the carbon content of energy and fuels, would primarily affect electric generation, gasoline & diesel, and heating fuels (natural gas, fuel oil). A narrower tax could affect only fuels, or electricity. The UK’s carbon tax, for instance, taxes various energy sources at differing rates.

Who consumes energy in D.C., and how?
The EIA reports that DC’s total energy consumption is 70.5% imported electricity, 18.7% natural gas, 7.9% gasoline, and 2.7%fuel oil. 66.3% of energy is consumed by the commercial sector (i.e., offices), 19.9% by residences, 12.1% by transportation (i.e., cars & trucks), and 1.6% by industry.

Of carbon emissions within DC proper in 2010, natural gas was 54.6% and petroleum 45.2%. Because DC imports all of its electricity, it has the least carbon intense economy among the states, emitting 91.6% less CO2 per dollar of GDP than the US average. This does not, however, include fuel burned for electricity used by DC end users; 59.2% of DC electricity originated from fossil fuel generators.

Have carbon taxes been implemented elsewhere?
Yes, several jurisdictions have. Finland and Sweden were first, in 1990 and 1991. In North America, the provinces of British Columbia and Quebec have carbon taxes, as does the city of Boulder (on electricity only). Dozens of multinational corporations, including most oil majors, use an “internal carbon price” to evaluate corporate decisions: ExxonMobil’s is $60/ton.

How have these fared?
British Columbia’s carbon tax, unique in its broad reach even though the province works within the framework of a high-carbon-emitting country, “has been remarkably effective in reducing fuel use, with no apparent adverse impact on the province’s economy,” according to a University of Ottawa study. GDP growth paralleled Canada’s, income tax rates fell to the lowest nationwide, and fuel consumption fell by 17.4% per capita.

Have carbon taxes been proposed in U.S. states?
A bill has been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature, and a ballot measure is currently collecting signatures. In Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee has specifically directed a legislative commission to study a carbon tax, and an NGO has proposed draft legislation.

What level of tax would be appropriate?
An easy guideline for measuring the impact of a carbon tax is that a tax of $1 per ton of CO2 results in just less than 1¢ in tax per gallon of gasoline. DC’s current gas tax rate of 23.5¢ per gallon thus implies a tax rate of $27.98/ton of carbon dioxide. (Maryland’s gas tax is now 27.1369¢.) This rate is very similar to the C$30/ton that British Columbia charges.

Where do proceeds of carbon taxes go?
In most cases, as in British Columbia, carbon taxes are a “tax swap,” whereby other taxes — notably on income, capital, etc. — are reduced. Some bills, like that proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby, feature a “dividend,” or direct rebate back to taxpayers. Sometimes, climate actions are funded with a portion of proceeds as well; the Massachusetts bill, for instance, directs $90 million in revenue towards transportation debts and 10% to clean energy. In DC, ambitious plans have been launched, but not yet funded, for transit expansion (by WMATA and DC) and for cutting emissions, and a carbon tax would be one way of funding implementation of those plans. (Boulder’s tax was implemented to fund its climate action plan.) In addition, DC currently pays its annual operating subsidies for both WMATA ($275 million in FY2014: $58M bus, $42M rail, $22M paratransit) and DDOT transit out of general funds, and a carbon tax could be a stable, dedicated source of transit operating funds.

Who are winners and losers?
A carbon tax that includes electricity would have a much broader base and thus wider impact. It would primarily affect the office sector, and as such mostly commuters, but it might also attract Congressional attention. A carbon tax solely on fuels would mostly impact building heating/cooling; again, this would largely fall on offices, but also on DC residents’ heating bills.

Although a carbon tax typically is somewhat regressive, there are many ways to design a carbon tax to mitigate impacts on lower income consumers. In particular, a DC carbon tax could use targeted measures to offset higher home heating costs for low income residents: income tax credits, weatherization or LIHEAP assistance, and transit improvements.

Further reading
Sightline Institute: Carbon Tax Fact Sheet
Resources for the Future: Carbon Tax FAQs
Citizens Climate Lobby: DC Chapter

The Silk Road’s detour to the Washington Channel

The first post in the watershed series mentioned that Morus alba (white mulberry) is a common invasive understory tree found at the edges of lawns along the Washington Channel, particularly along the unmown verge beside the fences that ring East Potomac Park’s recreation facilities. Given a chance, these shrubs will grow into a smallish tree of up to 15 meters, with a peculiar combination of lobed leaves on young shoots and heart-shaped leaves on older shoots. Its copious blackberry-looking fruits , which can disperse an estimated 20 million seeds per tree, make a convenient food source for birds and maybe humans — or else they leave a sticky purple mess on the walkways below.

But wait, mulberry? Isn’t that what silk is made from? How did that end up here?

White mulberry
What is this weed, and what does it have to do with the Opium Wars, Jefferson family wedding gowns, and deforestation in Ontario?

Silk production, or sericulture, was invented in China at least 4,000 years ago; legend says it was discovered by a princess who was strolling through the woods with a cup of hot tea. Young mulberry leaves are fed to silkworms, which spin silk threads around their cocoon as they metamorphose into moths. The cocoons are collected, boiled, and the threads are spun into fiber. China still accounts for most of the almost one million hectares (2.5 million acres) of mulberry under cultivation worldwide, according to the FAO, largely for silk but also for forage, wood, and even biofuel.

Yet sericulture (silk cultivation) requires that both mulberries and silkworms thrive in tandem. Mulberries obviously have adapted well enough to the local climate; thousands of years of domestication has selected for robust and easily grown varieties. The silkworms are a different story: they’ve been raised indoors for thousands of years, and thus have evolved into a very narrow ecosystem — they don’t even survive in the wild anymore, and require an exacting temperature range of 73-84° F, with high humidities, in order to thrive.

Silk was long one of the world’s most coveted agricultural products, and for centuries the world went to astonishing lengths to procure it from China.* Starting all the way back in Jamestown, Virginians attempted to get a cut of this lucrative trade by manufacturing silk: it seemed an ideal fit for the area’s warm climate and then-remote location, and potentially valuable both for the colonists and for British weavers. Yet while Virginia hews a bit closer to such temperatures than England, it isn’t exactly a room-temperature silkworm paradise. So while the robust mulberry thrived, fragile silkworms brought to Virginia didn’t, and instead Virginians profited off the native tobacco plant.

Mulberry Row

Thomas Jefferson’s family attempted silk cultivation at Monticello, and the results are telling. Above is “Mulberry Row,” the remnant of a lane lined with mulberry trees and, once upon a time, several buildings where slaves and other laborers did much of the work of the plantation. Obviously, the mulberry trees have done okay over the years — outlasting the buildings, for instance. The silkworms, though? Not so much. In 1811, Jefferson jokingly wrote to his granddaughter Cornelia,

your family of silk worms is reduced to a single individual that is now spinning his broach. to encourage Virginia and Mary to take care of it, I tell them that as soon as they can get wedding gowns from this spinner they shall be married. I propose the same to you that, in order to hasten it’s work, you may hasten home; for we all wish much to see you.

For what it’s worth, neither Mary nor Cornelia ever married, although I doubt her silkworm colony’s failure to generate enough silk for a wedding gown had much to do with that.

Silk was so valuable that Americans couldn’t be dissuaded by the industry’s failure in Virginia. Silkworms, as mentioned above, are fickle and highly adapted to the methods of Chinese sericulture; they feed almost exclusively on Morus alba, which as mentioned grows quite vigorously on Chinese farms. Eastern North America has a native variety of mulberry, Morus rubra, an understory plant suited to the area’s deep forests, but the silkworms rejected M. rubra feed.

Instead, colonists planted several Chinese mulberry varieties in hopes of keeping their silkworms happy. Colonial-era botanist William Bartram, in his travels through the South, noted dozens of instances of M. rubra but only one of M. alba trees — at a plantation near Beaufort, S.C. that was attempting sericulture (digitized book, pg. 308; location surmised between present-day Jacksonboro, S.C. and Savannah, Ga.). Later, Connecticut implemented various subsidy schemes, even including a cash bounty on planting Chinese mulberry varieties, and eventually succeeded at building a small silk industry in the 19th century.** (The Morus multicaulis mentioned in the Mansfield article is now recognized as a variety of M. alba.)

In the intervening centuries, the invasive M. alba has far outcompeted native M. rubra on its home turf: M. alba has spread much of the contiguous United States except for the desert Southwest, high plains, and taiga forest, and pushed M. rubra to endangerment in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ontario. Not only have widespread planting efforts like those in Connecticut spread M. alba far and wide, but it’s a tree that’s been honed by centuries of breeding for vigor, with a “high growth rate and great adaptability to adverse environments,” according to the Global Invasive Species Database: “M. alba and hybrids were evaluated to be consistently more fit than the native M. rubra in a laboratory study.” M. alba hybridizes with, and spreads root diseases, to M. rubra. Widespread deforestation and urbanization in eastern North America opened up countless opportunities for sun-loving, early-successional species like M. alba, while concomitantly destroying the deep shade that M. rubra adapted to.

* As a descendant of Cantonese merchants, perhaps I should be glad that these experiments failed? Oh, the complicated webs that history weaves for us!
** The mild success found in Connecticut indicates that perhaps it was less the climate, but Virginia’s lack of capital for indoor silkworm warms, that doomed the early industry.


This semester, I’m taking a Natural Resources class through Virginia Tech about understanding local watersheds, wherein I’ll be researching and posting knowledge about the Washington Channel. You can explore the other watersheds that my classmates are investigating over at the class blog’s page. Other posts in this series can be found using the tag watershed.

Washington Channel: more a conduit than a stream

While Washington Channel is known for its fishing, it’s not because it’s a particularly inviting habitat for fish species. Instead, its unique flow pattern of imported water make it a “trap” for fish swept upriver by the tides, and as such it sees fish species that aren’t typically found in other local waters — which, oddly, makes it popular among anglers.

Washington Channel & Tidal Basin at high tide

The most productive and diverse habitat in most waterways–the shorelines–are along the Washington Channel entirely armored with concrete. Beyond those concrete walls are monocultures — either more concrete or lawns, rather than on-shore wetlands. Between the walls, the constant scouring effect of the Channel’s twice-daily flush keeps the Channel relatively deep, so there are scant near-shore wetlands: the central channel is kept at least 9-14 feet deep for navigation purposes, but the entire channel ranges from 3-26′ deep. (The Tidal Basin is a bit more inviting to life, since it’s shallow [5-7' throughout, average depth of 6.5 ft.] and a bit more placid.) The shallow-water ecosystems at the water’s edge, which combine sunlight, warmth, nutrients, and shelter, are largely absent along both. The Channel is, in effect, a concrete canyon.

DC Fire Rescue Boat and Army War College

This canyon isn’t very resilient, either; it can easily flood, as there’s nowhere for water to go when the river rises — or even for the wake from powerboats to do anything other than echo off the walls.

Washington Channel & Tidal Basin at high tide

The shore edge’s armor has started to degrade, though: a combination of higher water levels, subsidence by the marshy soil, inevitable concrete failure, and erosion means that some areas behind the seawall are now almost permanently wet. Some wetland species might start to colonize these damp pockets, although lawnmowers will probably thwart their progress.

Some of the shallower parts of the Washington Channel have demonstrated potential as rich habitat, though. A stretch of older seawall along Fort McNair, beginning in a small lee behind the Titanic Memorial, is a comparative haven for aquatic vegetation and fish. At one point, there was a 10-20′ wide band of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) off the fort’s shore — which, according to the NOAA navigation charts, is the shallowest part of the Channel at just 2-5′ deep. These underwater meadows provide valuable fish habitat, particularly for anadromous (half-ocean, half-estuary) species that spawn there before returning to the saltwater estuary downstream.

Even as Potomac River water quality has improved, habitat quality in Washington Channel remains poor. The quantity of SAV (much of it invasive hydrilla, which was still better than nothing) grew substantially in the 1990s, alongside large fish populations.

ecosystem health Wash Channel

Sadly, major rains throughout 2003 — when the Potomac carried more than 3X as much water as in the drier years 1999-2002, and twice its annual average (MWCOG/VT PDF, pg. 32-33*) — led to severe sediment and nutrient overload throughout the Potomac ecosystem, and thus to large algae blooms in 2004. These two years’ trials devastated established SAV in the upper Potomac estuary, including in Washington Channel, and so far neither plant nor animal life seems to have recovered.

Second chances: improving habitat in channelized waterways

While the Washington Channel may be the local champion for having the least natural stream banks, it’s sadly far from the only such watershed nationally. Perhaps the worst example of an “imprisoned river” is the Los Angeles River, almost all of whose banks were paved back in 1938.

Yet nature does abhor a vacuum, and so if you provide adequate habitat (as the Channel did for those few lovely years around 2000), an ecosystem will soon blossom. In Chicago, the Friends of the Chicago River built a “floating fish hotel” to provide a smidgen of near-shore-wetland habitat within downtown’s urban canyon, and plans to significantly expand upon this experiment in the near future.

* Incidentally, to update something I wrote earlier about Western and Eastern water systems, the Colorado River’s pre-diversion annual flow was 50% larger than the Potomac’s average flow (at Little Falls) today. It would rank among the largest Eastern rivers, like the Hudson or Susquehanna. This great map from the Pacific Institute clearly shows my earlier point: the East is well-watered indeed.


This semester, I’m taking a Natural Resources class through Virginia Tech about understanding local watersheds, wherein I’ll be researching and posting knowledge about the Washington Channel. You can explore the other watersheds that my classmates are investigating over at the class blog’s page. Other posts in this series can be found using the tag watershed.

Fresh policies will freshen the flow into the Washington Channel

Yesterday, I wrote about the numerous storm drains that currently dump polluted water directly into Washington Channel. The District of Columbia recently adopted some of the nation’s most stringent and innovative rainwater policies, and the Washington Channel watershed stands to significantly benefit as plans and projects adapt to these new policies and incorporate state-of-the-art practices in green infrastructure (GI). The Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Rooftops to Rivers” report give DC’s new policies a high rank (just behind Philadelphia) among their “Emerald City Criteria” for river-friendly municipal policies.

Canal Park's fountain & rain garden
The new Washington Canal Park, just a few blocks east of the Washington Channel watershed, recycles stormwater not just for its site but also for three neighboring developments.

The impetus for these changes came from the 2011 renewal of DC’s “MS4 permit,” the EPA permit for the storm drains that drain the urbanized part of the Washington Channel watershed (and 2/3 of the District), and is managed by the District Department of Environment (DDOE). As part of this process, DC has adopted a completely new set of stormwater regulations with three key innovations:

  • a DDOE impervious surface charge to generate revenue for municipal green infrastructure, encourage existing buildings to reduce impervious cover, and reward “RiverSmart” properties (this is separate from DC Water’s impervious surface charge)
  • a retention standard that requires new buildings to retain 1.2″ of rainfall on site (~90% of all rain events), and renovations to retain 0.8″ on site
  • a credit trading scheme, the first in the country, giving the retention standard flexibility for dense downtown developments, rewarding efforts that go beyond, and generating funds for comparatively inexpensive GI improvements in the neighborhoods like Canal Park. By taxing bad things, like water pollution, you create an economic incentive to create good things, like neighborhood parks. (In DC, this creates a tidy way to “tax” federal offices through utility fees, and then build neighborhood parks.)

Although DDOE expects only 1% of the city to annually be affected by the retention mandate, that’s still 10X the area currently affected each year by voluntary green infrastructure efforts.

While this change in stormwater regulations is currently only tied to the separated storm drain permit managed by DDOE, DC Water hopes that these efforts will be able to have an appreciable impact on its troublesome combined sewer system. If so, DC Water may be able to renegotiate an existing EPA mandate requiring billions of dollars in new “deep tunnel” pipes (see pg. 7 of this Brookings report).

These just-implemented policy changes are already shaping up to have a positive impact on the Washington Channel watershed, where much of the urban fabric will change in coming years.

  • The Southwest EcoDistrict, a plan currently under development (primarily by the federal National Capital Planning Commission, with ZGF Architects) for the redevelopment of several blocks of mostly federal offices centered around 10th & D Streets SW, plans a truly cutting-edge water management scheme. The overarching goal is to reduce water use by 70% even while increasing the number of people on the site. Pages 11-29 of the May 2013 PowerPoint featured on their website goes into great detail about the strategies that the EcoDistrict can employ towards that goal: treating both greywater and air conditioning condensate water for potable use, storing a 1.7″ rain event in a truly vast cistern hidden underneath an existing bridge, and (by going beyond the 1.2″ mandate) receiving stormwater credits from other developments.
  • Over half of the Washington Channel’s urban frontage (over six blocks) is included within plans for the Wharf, a proposal to completely transform the Channel’s shoreline. The development embraces the Channel with a new riverwalk and several public piers that will bring the public down to the Channel’s water — very different than today’s gated-marina frontage. Complying with DC’s 1.2″ retention standard earns the Wharf the maximum number of LEED-ND points possible under the stormwater management credit, helping it achieve its LEED-ND Gold rating. Among the innovative strategies planned: using stormwater as process water within an on-site combined heat & power (cogeneration) facility that improves both energy efficiency and reliability.
  • Recent construction underneath the National Mall, part of which is within the Tidal Basin watershed, not only rebuilt the severely compacted turf but also included 500,000 gallons of rainwater storage in two cisterns — probably the city’s largest such installation. The Park Service plans another two cisterns as part of further Mall turf renovation, to store water running off the Mall (no, compacted turf doesn’t really do a great job of absorbing rain) and its drives for future irrigation uses. These cisterns could be just the start: in 2011, NCPC studied a two-block-long cistern, the entire width of the Mall, to store 20,000,000 gallons — enough to handle a 100-year rain event, and hopefully prevent the Federal Triangle from flooding again.
  • Stormwater fees are also having an impact on a smaller scale. My own apartment building near the Washington Channel, built during the concrete-happy 1960s, has just embarked upon an aggressive program to replace paved surfaces — open roof, impermeable walkways and driveways — with green or permeable surfaces. This long-overdue plan was put into motion due to the new impervious surface charge.

In the future, big storms like tonight’s (but not quite so big) might actually improve the Washington Channel’s water quality, instead of harm it. Later: a look at the Washington Channel’s water chemistry, plus what that means for future evaluation of the channel. But tomorrow, I’ll look at how the physical form of the Channel shapes habitats along, and within it.


This semester, I’m taking a Natural Resources class through Virginia Tech about understanding local watersheds, wherein I’ll be researching and posting knowledge about the Washington Channel. You can explore the other watersheds that my classmates are investigating over at the class blog’s page. Other posts in this series can be found using the tag watershed.

The rain falls upon this plain, but then what?

Washington Monument in a different reflecting pool

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Washington Channel is quite unique in that the water contained within it has little to do with its drainage basin: instead, its water is essentially imported from downstream via the tidal cycle. As such, its water quality (unlike almost all other waterways) largely does not reflect the land and water context adjacent to it. In addition, the Channel benefits from being entirely within the District of Columbia: the federal government has long held title over the waters (Morris vs. United States), and used parkland to create and frame the Basin and Channel. As a result of that unique context, not only does parkland surround all of the Tidal Basin and most of the Washington Channel, but the surface waters are also under federal protection.

Tidal Basin & Washington Channel hydrological maps

The Tidal Basin and Washington Channel do receive surface and groundwater runoff from their immediate areas, which together add up to 1.412 square miles of the District. The Tidal Basin drains 0.423 sq. mi., of which 0.169 sq. mi. (almost 40%) is surface water. 43% of the watershed is parklands and grass areas, including parts of the National Mall, the monuments ringing the Basin, and even the small hill underneath the Washington Monument.

Tidal Basin & Washington Channel hydrological maps

The Washington Channel drains 0.989 sq. mi., of which 0.3 sq. mi. (25%) is surface water. As its north bank is heavily developed, 53% of its watershed includes urban development, and the remaining 22% is parkland.

DC’s largest water pollution problem is its combined sewer/stormwater system, or “CSO.” (I’ll write more on these systems in later posts; they’re super-important for understanding urban water quality but not entirely relevant to this post.) This system, which is responsible for dumping a toxic brew of sewage and rainwater directly into many local waterways, drains one-third of the city, including most areas built before World War 2. However, since the immediate environs of the Tidal Basin and Washington Channel were redeveloped in a somewhat recent era, they have separate sewer and stormwater systems. This map shows the large parts of the city which have combined sewers — many of which, incidentally, are named after the creeks that they replaced:

Instead, smaller, separated storm drain systems — nine along the Channel and three along the Basin, delineated by the faint lines running roughly perpendicular to the water on the map below — intercept rainwater that falls on Southwest Washington’s roofs and streets, and dumps that untreated water into either the Tidal Basin (light blue on this map) or the Washington Channel (tan on this map):

Tidal Basin & Washington Channel hydrological maps

As you can see by comparing the first and last maps, the inland boundaries of the two watersheds are defined by these artificial drainages rather than the natural contour lines seen in the first map. If you look in the vicinity of N and O Streets SW, for instance, you’ll see that there’s a valley roughly between Third Street and Half Street. Historic maps show this as what was James Creek, which drained pretty much due south to the Anacostia River, but instead these blocks now drain “uphill” to the Potomac to the west.

The storm drains dump unfiltered water, often contaminated with urban pollutants, directly into the Basin and Channel. This contributes substantially to the substantial water quality problems within these two water bodies, but plans are underway to substantially reduce the quantity of these flows in the near future.

Sources for this post, notably the maps and geographic analysis of watersheds, include the DC Department of Environment’s water quality standards documents, which I’ll report on in greater detail in an upcoming post.


This semester, I’m taking a Natural Resources class through Virginia Tech about understanding local watersheds, wherein I’ll be researching and posting knowledge about the Washington Channel. You can explore the other watersheds that my classmates are investigating over at the class blog’s page. Other posts in this series can be found using the tag watershed.