News Feature | March 13, 2014

'Lady Bird' Aims To Solve Age-Old D.C. Sewage Problems

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


In a major water infrastructure project, a utility in the capital is installing Lady Bird, a machine that will snake under the city like a long assembly line to transport sewage—and, hopefully, solve sewage problems that have plagued the city since the 19th century.

D.C. Water said Lady Bird, a giant tunnel boring machine (TBM), will dig "metro-sized tunnels" more than 100 feet underground. "Lady Bird is now grinding through mud and rock at four inches per minute-making her a speed demon by tunneling standards, but glacially slow by our own. Her thirty-foot-wide front end is covered in a cutter face that's pushed forward by hydraulic jacks," Gizmodo explained.  

The project, which will run beneath huge swaths of the city, is "the most amazing and expensive construction project that no one ever will see," according to the Washington Post.

The effort is made possible by impressive engineering. "The machine itself is a marvel of technology, an underground factory 443 feet long and almost six times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. It does about a dozen things at once, and it moves," the report said.

The project is necessary because of what the newspaper called a "dumb" decision. Many years ago, Washington installed a combined sewage system. As a result of that decision, the report said, "Washington needs this new, gargantuan 13-mile long, $2.6 billion sewer tunnel."  

Lady Bird is designed to solve "a problem that's plagued the city since the Civil War. When it rains, storm water mixes with everything you flush down the drain, routinely flooding some neighborhoods -- and spewing billions of gallons of raw sewage and runoff into the Potomac, Rock Creek, and the Anacostia," WUSA 9 reported

D.C. Water explained some background on Lady Bird and other tunnel boring machines at a launch event for the project. 

"TBMs are named much like boats in the nautical world. DC Water’s TBM was named 'Lady Bird' after Claudia Alta 'Lady Bird' Johnson, First Lady and wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson," the utility said. That's because Lady Bird Johnson "made it her mission to preserve and protect the environment" during her husband's presidency, according to the utility. 

The effort is part of the capital's environmental strategy. 

"Earlier this year, I unveiled the Sustainable DC Plan, a 20-year plan to make the District the healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the nation," Mayor Vincent Gray said at a launch event for Lady Bird. 

Upgrades to wastewater infrastructure "go a long way to providing sustainability for the region, making our waterways healthier and cleaner, while also addressing localized sewer issues from a century of urban development," the report said. 

Image credit: "Washington DC - December 2009," © 2009 andrewarchy, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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