In 1955, the Washington D.C. area was named one of the 10 most polluted cities in the U.S. by sanitation experts. Across the country, untreated sewage was piped directly into waterways causing a rapid decline in the water environment. Beaches, rivers, and lakes were closing to recreation because of the human health hazards they posed.
A 1955 article in the Washington Post and Times-Herald entitled “Potomac Swimming Days are Gone Forever,” reads “if anybody envisions the day when it will be safe to swim in the Potomac between Key Bridge and Mount Vernon, he might as well put away that dream. Such a happy development is not even remotely contemplated by our most optimistic city planners.”
Before 1956, Alexandria had no wastewater treatment facility. Eight million gallons of raw sewage from the city’s 75,000 residents was discharged daily into Hunting Creek, Four Mile Run, and the Potomac River. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin reported that there was no animal life on the bottom of Four Mile Run, instead it was coated with what they called a “black and sticky mixture, containing… recognizable particles of sewage origin.” On the surface, Alexandria’s rivers were covered with fecal material. “Parts of the surface froth with gas bubbles coming up from the bottom,” the report read.
In response to this public health and environmental crisis sweeping the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 — the first major U.S. law to address water pollution. It was later expanded to become the well-known Clean Water Act.
In 1952, Alexandria City Council created AlexRenew. This set into motion construction of three large interceptors — the Potomac, Commonwealth, and Holmes Run — and an $8.2-million wastewater treatment plant on the former site of a city dump. The construction was not without challenges. When laying the Potomac interceptor, one of the pipes sank into the soft soil along Alexandria’s waterfront and was not seen again. Acidic soil from an old gas works plant ate through the concrete of another pipe, and the new pipe had to be surrounded by a thick wall of limestone.
But the hard work was worthwhile. On July 27, 1956, AlexRenew celebrated its opening. At that time, the plant had 17 operators and mechanics on three working shifts. They cleaned 10 million gallons of wastewater every day from 90,000 people in Alexandria and Fairfax.
According to newspapers at the time, the new facility removed 70 to 80 percent of “sewage’s polluting effects” and 95 percent of all solid materials. “The new plant will produce nuisance-free conditions in the river and raise the water quality to support fish,” said then Alexandria Sanitation Authority Engineer-Director James Corbalis in 1956.
Today, we serve more than 300,000 people in Alexandria and Fairfax by cleaning 35 million gallons of dirty water daily. Since 1956, AlexRenew has invested millions of dollars into critical clean water infrastructure, so that Alexandria’s waterways can be a safe source of drinking water and recreation. Today, 60 years after AlexRenew began operating, we are still managing costs, surpassing regulations, and enabling Alexandria to grow and thrive.
This year, thanks to the efforts of many clean water partners, the Potomac River received its best grade yet — pollution is decreasing, fisheries are rebounding, and more people are enjoying the river. We are now able to envision the day when it will be safe to swim in the Potomac again. In fact, it is our 2040 vision that the Alexandria community will be able to swim in and eat fish from local waters. We are thankful to the community for their investments, and we are proud of the hard work that has helped to put this vision within reach.