FEMA has a flooding problem.
From their headquarters at 500 C St. SW, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials help clean up floods all around the country. But they don’t have to travel to witness some water damage. All they have to do is take the elevator to the basement.
In early December, the elevator doors open on a puddle extending 20 feet or so in the building’s underground parking garage. The standing water laps up against the wheels of a green Chevrolet Monte Carlo with custom flames painted on the side and vanity plates reading “SNOOTZY.” Nearby, a constellation of small holes riddle the garage’s white concrete wall. Brown stains emerge from the holes and stretch toward the floor.
About a year ago, city officials with the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) were asked to investigate the leaks. WASA receives a steady trickle of such requests from residents and businesses, says Chief Engineer and Deputy General Manager Michael Marcotte.
When faced with a mysterious inflow of water, WASA has to determine whether the water is coming from city pipes, and if so, to clean it up. Municipal water is easy to identify, Marcotte says, in part because it contains fluoride to promote dental healthspecifically, .6 to 1.0 parts per million of fluoride.
Marcotte dispatched a crew to the FEMA basement to check the wet parts for fluoride. As it turned out, the amount of fluoride in the seepage was far less than the city standard. After a series of additional tests, WASA determined that the leak wasn’t coming from city pipes.
The water was coming from somewhere else.
You never know what you’re going to find when you go digging at the foundations of Washington.
In the summer of 1986, a freelance journalist named Bob Arnebeck set out to uncover the District’s equivalent of Julius Caesar. Arnebeck, a writer with a flair for historical vignettes, wasn’t concerned with Caesar the dictator, the general, or the statesman. No, Arnebeck was interested in a less heralded incarnation of the legendary Roman emperor: Caesar the swamp drainer, the guy who first proposed sucking dry the Pontine Marshes of Rome.
Someone must have done the job, Arnebeck figured. Every summer, as humidity suffocates the District, citizens grab the first explanation on the shelf: This is what we get for living in a city built on a swamp. But in his many wanderings around the city, Arnebeck had seen little physical evidence of the District’s swampy roots. Where had the reedy marshes gone? The soggy fens?
Sometime in the past, somebody must have buried the District’s swamps out of spite, or ambition, or greed. Maybe it was the infamous Boss Shepherd, onetime emperor of public works. Or perhaps it was some nobody, seeking ecological revenge after losing his young bride to yellow fever, who buried every mosquito-harboring puddle within view of the Capitol. Either way, Arnebeck intended to find him.
But nowhere in the annals of municipal planning or public health could he track down anyone taking credit for the deed. Arnebeck looked through document after document at the Columbia Historical Society. But he didn’t discover any primary sources referring to the filling of the swamp.
Then came the epiphany: Perhaps there had been no swamp drainer because there had been no swamp. Perhaps the District’s wetlands were not a lost relic buried in the annals of history, but a myth that spread out in the imaginations of local residents, fed by the bottomless springs of summer sweat.
So instead of finding the Caesar of the lower Potomac, Arnebeck resolved to become that Caesar. He would drain the District’s swamps himself, not through civil engineering but via historiography.
In June 1986, Arnebeck published his findings in an article in the Washington Post Magazine. The headline treatment said it all: “What Swamp? Repeat after us: We are not a swamp, we are not a swamp, we are not a swamp.”
“Calling Washington a swamp is the ultimate insider’s put-down,” wrote Arnebeck. “Enough, already, let us end the illusions: There was no swamp when Washington was founded. There was no stagnant water, there were no breeding places for mosquitoes downtown, there was no stench, no muck.”
It was a revolutionary message for the downtrodden District. The image of the swamp has long been the weapon of first resort for the city’s foes. In 2002, when expatriate Washingtonian Frank Rich attacked his hometown in a New York Times Magazine essay, he turned immediately to the words of Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, authors of the 1951 best seller Washington Confidential: “The founding fathers, whose infinite wisdom gave us a Constitution and form of government well nigh perfect, located the seat of that government in a stinking, steaming swamp.”
But thanks to Arnebeck, District residents could shrug off the reheated insult. We are not a swamp. We are not a swamp.
How do we know?
Arnebeck based his solid-ground theory on no less an authority than George Washington. He quoted a passage written by the Father of Our Country in 1791, the year that Washington announced his choice for the site of the federal city: “[T]he lands within and surrounding the District of Columbia are as high, as dry, and as healthy as any in the United States.”
He also pointed out the lack of evidence documenting any supposed swamps. “On no 18th-century map of Washington is any area named or shaded as a swamp,” he wrote.
And he quoted historian Kenneth Bowling: “I’ve already heard two people on the subway this year telling tourists that Washington was built on a swamp. I wanted to stand up and shout, ‘It was not built on a swamp. THERE WAS NO SWAMP.’”
Arnebeck identified Bowling, a history professor at George Washington University, as someone who “knows more about the founding of Washington than any other historian.” At the time, they were neighbors, living in an apartment building in Adams Morgan. The two formed a neighborly bond over their mutual distaste for people who exaggerated the extent of poorly drained land in the District circa 1791. Together, they agreed to spread the word.
The following February, Arnebeck and Bowling were invited to speak at a panel discussion on the history of swamps in the District sponsored by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
The panel began with Arnebeck and Bowling piling on the dirt. There was no swamp, they told the audience. No matter how sticky the summers, no matter how many times your basement floods, no matter how many times you want to make some cute quip comparing the stagnation on Capitol Hill to the stagnation buried under it, that does not a swamp make. Get over it.
Then Don Hawkins, an architect, urban planner, and cartographic historian, stood up. Hawkins knew a thing or two about the city’s foundations. For years, Hawkins had been poring over old maps of the city and compiling the information for maps of his own.
Hawkins stepped to the front of the room and put a slide into the projector. It was a photocopy he had made of a drawing, dating back to 1804, by Benjamin Latrobe, the architect who completed the U.S. Capitol.
The sketch outlined the area at the base of Capitol Hill where Latrobe was working on building a canal. There, at the foot of the hill, in the great architect’s own handwriting, was a plain English word: “MARSH.”
Hawkins sits in a cafe in Adams Morgan and stares at the map on the table in front of him.
In one hand, he holds a silver mechanical pencil, which looks like a scalpel.
It’s been about three decades since Hawkins began reconstructing early maps of the city like this one, nearly 17 years that he’s been dueling with Arnebeck.
The map depicts the topography of the city in 1791. Wavy chestnut-colored lines, hundreds of them, trace the rise and fall of the land. The rolling landscape, striated like a cerebrum, sits in the wedge formed by the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, each rendered in shades of pale blue. The city’s myriad creeks and streams appear as dark blue lines weaving through the terrain.
Superimposed on the topography is a grid of rigid geometric lines representing the streets and avenues, circles and squares of Pierre L’Enfant’s design for the federal city.
Hawkins’ pencil glides above the map, pausing here and there to draw conspicuous circles around little blue clusters of dots. “They’re hard to see on this scale,” he says. “But those are mapping shorthand for swamps.”
By the time he’s done, Hawkins has marked six circles within the original city boundariessix historic swamps. There’s Black Duck Gut on the west end of the Mall, Slash Run Swamp near Dupont Circle, reedy marshes surrounding Reed Branch, just south of Florida Avenue at T Street NW, and two small swamps alongside Tiber Creek, near 1st and M Streets NE and at New Jersey Avenue and D Street NW. There’s also the swamp at the foot of Capitol Hill, which Latrobe had labeled on his own map, albeit without the blue dots.
Wherever you go in the heart of the city, by Hawkins’ map, you’re not far from a swamp. Over the past 17 years, the Hawkins interpretation has gained prominence among historians. His maps have been displayed at the Library of Congress, have appeared in Washington History magazine, and will be featured in an upcoming exhibit at the National Building Museum.
Hawkins says that Arnebeck’s argument against the swamps is about as solid as a lily pad. The swamp debunkers, he says, looked for geographical information in political sourceswhich is as foolhardy as looking for political information in geographic sources. If late-18th-century geographic records of the District don’t discuss, say, Congress, does that mean there was no legislative branch at the time? “Not mentioning something doesn’t mean it’s not there,” says Hawkins.
Hawkins dismisses the “high, dry” quote from George Washington as propaganda. Prior to 1791, various groups had been competing to locate the capitol at different spots along the Eastern seaboard. Washington was making his case for the ground beneath our feet.
“At one point [Arnebeck] asked me, ‘Are you calling the founder of our country a liar?’” recalls Hawkins. “I told him, ‘No. I’m calling him a real-estate speculator.’”
It’s been a while since Hawkins has seen or heard from his old nemesis. “Call him up and tell him you’re going to expose him as a fraud,” suggests Hawkins. “That’ll get him talking in a hurry.”
These days, Arnebeck lives in a “real swamp” on the St. Lawrence River near the border with Canada, where he documents the lives of minks and otters for an Internet nature journal. From his personal Web site, Arnebeck also sells educational videos about beavers and posts essays on such topics as “Beavers in the Jesuit Relations.”
Arnebeck wants to know what his former rival is up to. “Is Hawkins still kicking?” he asks.
Arnebeck hasn’t entirely let go of the District’s swampology. He maintains a page on his Web site dedicated to spreading the word that the District’s swamps are a myth. “What bristled me then, and what bristles me now, is the idea that Washington was built on a swamp,” says Arnebeck. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Over the years, the debate has slipped further and further into linguistic mud-wrestling: What do you mean by “swamp”? Are you using an ecological definition or a vernacular one? A 20th-century definition or an 18th-century one? By “swamp,” do you mean wetland? By “wetland,” do you mean swamp?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines four different types of wetlandsswamps, marshes, bogs, and fenswith 10 different subtypes. The definitions are technical, the distinctions sundry and often slim. For instance, according to the EPA, “Fens differ from bogs because they are less acidic and have higher nutrient levels.”
In his manifesto, Arnebeck didn’t pause to define what kind of swamp he was writing about or to distinguish between, say, tidal marshes and shrub swamps. He didn’t ask his readers to repeat: “We are not a bottomland hardwood swamp. We are not a bottomland hardwood swamp.”
It’s clear from the context that Arnebeck was employing a general interpretation of the word, similar to the Webster’s II New College Dictionary definition: “a lowland region saturated with water.”
But as the debate thickened, Arnebeck’s definition of swamp got thinner. These days, Arnebeck and Bowling make sure to distinguish between a swamp, which is characterized by trees growing in standing water, and a marsh, which has reeds growing in standing water.
By 1991, for instance, Bowling was parsing the technical distinction in his argument. “No part of the well-drained city supported a swamp, a wetland where trees stand in water all or most of the time,” he wrote in The Creation of Washington, D.C. “These two small, low lying areas between Tiber Creek and Pennsylvania Avenue were subject to periodic flooding, but the most descriptive source clearly used ‘swamp’ in the sense of an area overgrown with bushes, briars and thorns, not trees in standing water.”
In other words, a swamp is not always a swamp.
Other anti-swampsters have argued that “swamp” refers to particularly large areas of wetlandssuch as the Great Dismal Swamp or the Okefenokee Swampand not to the small bogs and fens that once lay scattered throughout the District.
Hawkins says that, in all, D.C.’s swamplands comprised roughly 100 acres, or about 1.6 percent of the original city. But that figure doesn’t include the extensive freshwater tidal marshes that lined the Anacostia just outside the city proper.
“Cattail and reed tidal marshes, home to kingfishers, herons, muskrats and turtles, lined the Upper Anacostia and smaller inlets and creeks,” wrote Bowling in The Creation of Washington, D.C. “Along the Upper Anacostia grew extensive patches of wild rice. Springs were abundant, particularly in the city’s eastern sector.”
It all adds up to a central truth about our city: We sit on a particularly soggy patch of the planet. “Washington in its earliest days had ample provision of water,” reads an article from the Washington Times in July 1900. “Indeed, what is now its central portion seemed to promise in the future a Venice or Amsterdam.”
In 1791, water surrounded the original city on three sides: the Anacostia to the southeast, the Potomac to the southwest, Rock Creek to the northwest. The city’s one dry boundary was set by the Sunderland Escarpment, a series of hills that formed a rim around the city. Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue, cut along the base of these uprisings. From above, the city would have looked like an amphitheater, its seats the series of terraced bluffs and wide valleys that overlooked the Potomac and Anacostia.
The rainwater that fell on these hills rolled through Washington on its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Creek after creek crisscrossed the city. The largest was Tiber or Goose Creek, which at its prime drained about half the District. Tiber Creek meandered westward along what is today Constitution Avenue before gradually widening and emptying into the Potomac at 17th Street. There were other streams, too: Slash Run. Brown’s Run. Piney Branch. Reed Branch. James Creek.
Water came up from below, too. Until about 1860, most of the city’s drinking water came from shallow wells and from the area’s ubiquitous springs. Gibson’s Spring. The City Spring. Willow Spring. Leech Spring. Back then, you didn’t need a whole lot of heavy machinery to bore into the city’s groundwater. You could practically use a straw.
Or you could use an ax and a shovel. In the 19th century, as the city began to develop in earnest, the wetlands grew along with it. Residents chopped down trees and loosened hillsides, reducing the land’s ability to hold water. Like a wet sponge being squeezed, the District’s surface became soggy. Flooding increased in the lowlands.
“Nature had provided man with a well-forested, well-drained area with undulating hills at the confluence of two large rivers,” wrote Arnebeck. “In short order men cut the trees and mucked up the natural drainage.”
The tidal marshlands that bordered the city also expanded throughout the 19th century because of farming and deforestation upstream on the Anacostia. “When you deforest a region above a watershed, the area below starts silting up,” says Arnebeck. “That’s Ecology 101. That’s what happened to the Potomac and the Anacostia. They silted up. And these huge tidal flats formed, for instance, in the area south of the White House.”
To Arnebeck, this proves that the District wasn’t really built on a swamp. Instead, he argues, a swamp was built on the District.
But this new, waterlogged Washington was far from the finished product. City planners would spend another century struggling to tame the wetlands so that the modern District could emerge. On the tidal flats below the White House, for instance, they eventually built up dry land, creating the future sites of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. When the cherry blossoms bloom, they’re blooming over buried swamplands.
Throughout the city, swampiness was a constant problem. Until the 1870s, D.C. lacked an extensive municipal sewer system. Rivers and streams, marshes and swamps became de facto dumping grounds. Eventually, the human waste took a toll. The marshes and the swamps and bogs and the fensaboveground areas where water lingeredwere hit the hardest. They held the sewage. Neighbors held their noses.
So the city’s incipient NIMBYism claimed its first set of victimsWashington’s waterways, slow and fast. Tiber Creek was converted into a canal, then buried. The District’s central waterway now runs beneath Constitution Avenue, through a length of sewer pipe.
Slash Run, which had become the disposal trough for trimming from the slaughterhouses on its banks, suffered the same fate. So did James Creek and the others.
“The olden engineering looked to utilizing and beautifying the great marsh which stretched westward from the Capitol alongside the Mall to the Potomac at Seventeenth Street,” reads the Washington Times article from 1900. “But later engineers have filled up the marsh and blocked the old time streams from sight in sewers and subterranean water courses….the President might have ridden to the base of the Capitol in a gondola of state.”
Instead, we buried our creeks, submerged our springs, and filled in our marshes. Even the neighborhood of Swampoodle, stuck in a boggy, low-lying area, was demolished, covered by Union Station and the surrounding plaza.
To this day, the job of suppressing the water goes on. The groundwater downtown lurks just below the surface, leaking into newly excavated basements, sneaking into underground parking garages, and occasionally slipping to the surface in the form of a spring.
When the groundwater gets loose, it gets pumped into our combined sewer system and rolls down grade to the Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant. Roughly 2 percent of Blue Plains wastewater comes from groundwatermore than 6 million gallons a day.
The piece of fox scat sits on the edge of a bridge that stretches from the banks of the District across a side channel of the Anacostia, known as Kingman Lake, to the forested banks of Heritage Island.
Steve McKindley-Ward stops midstride to examine the poo. He bends down on one knee and, using his finger, rolls the turd over for closer inspection.
It’s compact, with a reddish hue, and consists primarily of tightly packed purple seeds. “I wonder what those seeds are from,” says McKindley-Ward. “I like to pretend I’m a naturalist.”
For the past several years, McKindley-Ward has worked as a horticulturist for the Anacostia Watershed Society. He doubles as a swamp booster.
“People a hundred years ago looked at these swamps and saw unusable land, land you couldn’t build on, land you couldn’t farm,” says McKindley-Ward. “They said, ‘What good is this, except giving us malaria?’ But the loss of these wetlands, it’s the equivalent of removing both of your kidneys. The kidneys serve to clean up the blood. That’s what the wetlands do for the river.”
Throughout the year, McKindley-Ward delivers similar sermons to groups of students from local schools, who are helping to replant the District’s lost swamplands as part of the Wetland Nursery and Rice Rangers projects. “They love the mud,” he says.
To get to the fox’s leavings, McKindley-Ward parked his pickup truck in the parking lot of the Langston Golf Course and walked past the first tee, through a chain-link fence, over Benning Road, across the former Grand Prix race track on the outskirts of RFK Stadium, through a thin strand of trees, to the bridge.
Now he walks to the middle of the bridge. It’s low tide. A thin channel of water, barely an inch deep, lingers below.
McKindley-Ward gestures to his left. There, at the side of the channel, enclosed by a ring of fencing, thin reeds hug the shoreline. The rest of the channel appears to be empty mud flats. A few stray tires and buckets poke through the brown sludge.
He points to another small patch of wetlands, surrounded by fencing and strips of yellow marking tape. “That’s my wild rice,” says McKindley-Ward.
The old, spreading acreage of wild rice is nowhere to be seen. McKindley-Ward rhapsodizes about black-and-white aerial photographs showing what this area looked like before the Army Corps of Engineers began its incessant dredging and filling, which destroyed the wild-rice ecosystem. He estimates that 2,400 acres of wetlands have been lost in the greater Washington area since the city’s founding.
But in recent years, the swamps have enjoyed a tenuous comeback. Since 1997, the D.C. Department of Health’s Watershed Protection Division has partnered with the Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service to try to re-establish some of these wetlands. So far they’ve reconstructed about 90 acres of freshwater tidal marsh, along Heritage and Lower Kingman Islands and adjacent to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Six more acres of wetlands are in the works for next year. The Anacostia Watershed Society helps to promote the recovery.
Not long after planting sedges at Kingman Marsh, horticulturists for the agencies realized they weren’t the only ones that loved such plants as Sagittaria latifolia, aka duck potato. Within waddling distance of the emergent wetlands, a flock of Canada geese have become regulars at the Langston Golf Course. Except for the cattails and the spatterdock, the geese love to snack on everything in the wetlands, and the ecologists have resorted to building fences to keep them at bay.
Still, McKindley-Ward waxes romantic about the fence-free future of the swamplands. The geese will be put in check. Engineers will dig out the channel. Canoers will glide through the area, even at low tide. Turtles and beavers and muskrats will weave between the thick beds of reeds and sedges. Perhaps someday, sora railsmarsh birds with chickenlike feetwill return to the District. Nobody has seen a wild sora rail here for about a hundred years. The birds disappeared along with the wetlands. Now the sora rail exists as a distant memory, a myth in the making.
A ball of auburn feathers zips through the air overhead and lands in a tree. McKindley-Ward identifies the bird. It’s a kingfisher.
Then he points to his Anacostia Watershed Society baseball cap, which displays the image of a kingfisher. “That’s our symbol,” he says.
A few minutes later, a long, dark bird, its wings tucked in tight, dive-bombs the surface of the channel, disappearing into the brown water. Seconds after, it reappears, floating ducklike on the surface. McKindley-Ward says it’s a double-crested cormorant.
Some of the District’s buried waterways are on the verge of returning to the surface. Planners are currently working to “daylight” a stretch of Pope Branch, which for years has run through a pipe beneath lower Anacostia Park. In a few years, the creek will, once again, trickle aboveground on its way to the Anacostia River, surrounded here and there by patches of wetlands.
Ideally, all of the District’s hidden creeks and springs and marshes and swamps could be brought back from the grave, back to the surface. But even an optimist like McKindley-Ward knows that in reality there are limitations. The soggy spots downtown have been replaced by so many federal buildings, places like the FEMA headquarters.
“Sure, it’s possible,” says McKindley-Ward. “But you’d have to dig up some of the most valuable real estate in the world.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.