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Dangerous Levees, Right Here in River City

Don't say you weren't warned: The Army Corps of Engineers, now blessed with a nation that finally understands what happens when the levees don't hold, has issued a list of 122 levees that are in danger of failing, including five in the District and Prince George's County.

That means that the maintenance on levees along the Anacostia River is so bad that the towns of Bladensburg and Hyattsville in Maryland, and Potomac Park, Anacostia Park, Bolling Air Force Base, and the U.S. Naval Air Station in the District could be flooded. (How does that bit of news fit in with the dreams of developers and Mayor Adrian Fenty to build a soccer stadium and a new community of residential and retail buildings at Poplar Point?)

The Corps of Engineers didn't exactly volunteer this information. The report came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press and several other news organizations. But the situation along these levees is dire enough that property owners along these shorelines may be required to purchase flood insurance and the folks at FEMA are recommending that people who live near the river put together an evacuation plan, a family emergency plan, and a disaster supply kit, along with buying flood insurance.

How did this happen? The Anacostia Watershed Society, which has been trying to warn us about all this for longer than most of us will want to admit, says that for decades, stormwater has been allowed to flow uncontrolled from new development sites into the Anacostia, carrying untold thousands of tons of sediment and waste into the river, where it has built up. The Watershed Society has dramatic photos of deep erosion gullies that the stormwater from places such as shopping malls in Prince George's County has gouged into the land, depositing all that sediment into the Anacostia. The result has filled the river channel, drastically reducing its ability to carry off rainwater down to the Chesapeake Bay. That water has to go somewhere, and what we're seeing more of every year is the water flooding out of the Anacostia and into its neighboring floodplains--land that is used for parks, housing and other development.

Decades-old levees built to protect that developed land--especially the towns of Bladensburg and Hyattsville and the parkland and military installations along the river in the District--aren't equipped to handle the volume of water that now flows over from the clogged river.

"The Anacostia River has long been bearing the brunt of our failed stormwater management and land policies," says Robert Boone, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "We need to ratchet the prevention controls much higher with proven, low-impact infiltration devices. Otherwise, the potential for a Hurricane Katrina-like disaster in the Washington area is frighteningly real."

Don't say you didn't know it could happen here.

By Marc Fisher |  February 6, 2007; 7:31 AM ET
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Mr. Fisher, sorry to leave a non sequitur comment but I am hoping that whoever administers your blog reads these things. I keep up with your blog through RSS, and I used to get the whole post in my feed--but now I'm just getting the first couple of sentences. I know you guys are trying to increase page/ad views, but I don't have that kind of time--I'm a lot more likely to just skip reading if I've got to navigate to a new page to finish a post. I imagine it's not your decision to make, but I hope whoever's decision it is decides to switch back to a full feed.

Thanks--as an expatriated DCer I like to keep up with local issues with your blog. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Jake | February 6, 2007 9:39 AM

The Government needs to do something about these Levees, fast. I do not think I could bear to read Eugene Robinson whine about it, should anything happen to PG County or certain sections of The District!!

Posted by: joejack65 | February 6, 2007 10:00 AM

Jojack65: You read?

Posted by: Mark | February 6, 2007 10:05 AM

No katrina in the works by any means, but it would help the situation if Americans knew the basics of what is at play. The water goes in the drain and that all they know or care. Yes, with development there is more stormwater runnoff and more water going into the river. but folks need to understand the associated pollution that comes with it, the impact on the ecosystem and the potential for flooding.

Posted by: RobGreg | February 6, 2007 10:26 AM

joejack- the inherent fallacy in your arguement, however, is that George Bush doesn't care about black people.

Better hope this happens after January 2009

Posted by: sjf | February 6, 2007 12:02 PM

So if it floods, who cares? It's just Maryland. They deserve whatever they get.

Posted by: JD | February 6, 2007 12:45 PM

Good column. Like New Orleans, maybe some of this area should be allowed to revert to the wild?

Posted by: gitarre | February 6, 2007 1:11 PM

noah loves soccer

Posted by: dc | February 6, 2007 2:34 PM

They are more apted to help the citizens of those areas simply because it is the nations' capitol and the powers that be maybe residents. The metropolitan areas does not want to loose capital and tourist money. This might be a way to drive away the "low income residents" and rebuild making it difficult for the residents to return to their homes. This is what is happening in New Orleans. Now since we know there is a chance of this happening, it the responsibility of the citizens as well as the powers-that-be to get a jumpstart before it is too late. Maybe Mayor Fenty is not concerned with this, only if it deters his plans for the stadium. What do you think?

Posted by: | February 6, 2007 4:54 PM

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