The groundbreaking for AlexRenew’s RiverRenew Tunnel Project was about as Alexandria as events get. The event was a who’s-who of current and former officials, complete with bagpipes, a poem about local sewage presented by the Town Crier, and even a cartoon mascot representing the boring machine getting ready to drill the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history.
The smiles and enthusiasm from city and state officials and organizations like the Potomac Riverkeeper Network were a marked departure from the occasionally contentious process that led to the $454.4 million RiverRenew project. Plans include replacing Old Town’s combined sewer system with a new sewer structure that will prevent 120 million gallons of combined sewage from flowing into the Potomac River.
“The Tunnel Project will include a two-mile-long underground tunnel, an open-cut pipeline, and other infrastructure to capture, store, and transport millions of gallons of combined sewage to AlexRenew’s wastewater treatment plant,” AlexRenew said in a press release. “There, these flows will be treated and cleaned prior to being returned to the Potomac River, reducing harmful overflow events from 70 to fewer than four each year.”
The city didn’t willingly enter into the project: the clean-up was mandated with a July 25, 2025 deadline by the state, over the objection of some local leadership. The project is currently scheduled to be finished on time.
“I’m proud of our role in bringing this great infrastructure investment today to life,” said Nancy Stoner, president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. “(T)his is critical infrastructure for protecting public health.”
Stoner said the eventual goal is to make the Potomac River swimmable again. Though later generations may not value the Herculean effort it took to get Old Town’s sewer system modernized, Mayor Justin Wilson said if it helps get the river into a cleaner state it will have been worth it.
“This investment prevents things from happening and provides an investment most people won’t really appreciate,” Wilson said. “People swimming in the Potomac years from now won’t really appreciate the investment. They’ll never see the investment, never understand it, but we will know, and we’ll know it was this generation that made the investment.”
Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for water for the Environmental Protection Agency, tied Alexandria’s experience in with nationwide efforts to improve water quality.
“This was one of the first loans I got to approve as part of the Biden-Harris administration,” Fox said. “One of the best bets we can make as a nation is to make these investments in our water infrastructure. It leads to environmental health, community vitality, that’s what this project is about. That’s a big, huge step Alexandria is taking today.”
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