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Sylvia Taylor’s golden years are proving a little less golden given the pace of her clothes-washing. Taylor, who’s lived east of the Anacostia River since 1949, loads up the washing machine in her Anacostia home—a new model she just purchased this year. Then she waits.
“Water pressure has always been a problem here,” she says. “You can do laundry, but the washing machine takes a long time to fill up.”
Taylor is one of many residents in Anacostia and other east-of-the-river neighborhoods who have complained about chronic low water pressure—a longtime problem that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) acknowledges.
Though the hilly topography of east-of-the-river areas makes delivering water a challenge, outdated infrastructure also keeps spigots from gushing. Water pressure east of the river has fallen as low as 28 psi, well below WASA’s “acceptability threshold” of 35 psi.
Michele Quander-Collins, the agency’s director of public affairs, says WASA is undertaking a $70 million plan to improve water flow in Anacostia. Water mains have been, and will continue to be, upgraded. A pre-WWI pumping station at Minnesota Avenue and R Street SE is scheduled to be replaced. A new 2-million-gallon elevated water storage tank is slated to be built on the St. Elizabeths campus.
For Ward 8 residents who want to wash their dishes and fill their bathtubs, the new water tower is particularly important—the only alternative is another noisy pumping system that would consume expensive energy and require costly maintenance. But St. Elizabeths’ designation as a national historic landmark has thwarted construction for the past year and a half. If WASA secures the appropriate permissions from the D.C. Office of Planning, the tower should be built by 2010. Until then, “there won’t be a lot of relief on the pressure issue,” Quander-Collins says.
Frustrated residents struggling with dripping faucets aren’t interested in preserving St. Elizabeths’ singular architecture.
“We need a water tower,” says Sandra Seegars. The vocal advisory neighborhood commissioner lives many blocks from Taylor—on the other side of St. Elizabeths and across the Suitland Parkway—but has reported similar pressure problems to WASA for more than a decade. “I’m sick of preservationists,” she says. “They say, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’…Trees and old buildings is a white thing.”
Anthony Muhammad, who sits on another advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) in Ward 8, sees a pattern of economic discrimination when he turns on the tap.
“We were told we were going to get a new water tower two years ago, and we’re still waiting,” Muhammad says. “This has been going on for years.…The poor have no advocate. The poor are still waiting.”
Jerry Johnson, WASA’s general manager, doesn’t think that water pressure relates to color or cash.
“This is not an east and west issue.…Infrastructure is the governing factor,” he says. Johnson points out that, depending on their distance from storage tanks and the size of their distribution pipes, areas west of the river—such as the veterans hospital near the intersection of North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NW—have water pressures comparable to areas east of the river.
As for claims of discrimination, Johnson says he “can’t speak to what has happened historically…[but WASA] does not service by race, class, or income category.”
In fact, WASA has gone out of its way to address Ward 8’s concerns—at least in this millennium. A few months ago, the agency released a 31-page, PowerPoint-friendly mea culpa dubbed “Planned Improvements to the Water System Infrastructure Located East of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.”
The presentation, prepared specifically for Seegars’ ANC, details WASA’s plans to improve H2O delivery in Ward 8. Everything from artful diagrams depicting current and future water flow to a discussion of “aesthetic enhancement opportunities” (i.e., selecting the shape of the St. Elizabeths tower) is included. The cavalcade of improvements is scheduled to be completed by 2010.
“This is a ‘good news’ story,” Johnson says.
Seegars says the news is better for some folks than for others; like Muhammad, she sees a racial element—in this case, in WASA’s timing. “I think they’re preparing Ward 8 for whites,” she says.
Johnnie Hemphill, another WASA spokesperson, says that the plans were made prior to 2000—well before gentrification in Ward 8 was a going concern—as part of an evaluation “that looked at all the main arteries in the distribution system.”
Regardless of WASA’s motives, Ward 8 residents are eager for a change in the status quo. Seegars, for one, has a lot of plants to water—her small front yard sports a well-tended garden, and her dining room is flush with flora. Any sort of hydrological multitasking—say, washing dishes while doing laundry or watering plants—presents problems.
“All right, watch this,” Seegars says on a recent hot day. She turns on the tap in her kitchen sink, walks downstairs, and turns on the water in another sink in the basement. The healthy flow from the kitchen tap immediately slows to a trickle. “And that’s just the sink,” Seegars says, coming back into the kitchen. “If you’re taking a shower upstairs, forget about it.”CP