Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: The Challenge to Improve the City’s Stormwater System

Over the coming months, the City Council will ask for public input on how best to fund projects to address flooding in the City and meet new, tougher federal and state requirements for water quality. We all recall the flooding that occurred in the City and throughout the region with Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011. Although the City engaged in maintenance and upgrades of its system, Tropical Storm Lee was an extraordinary event that uncovered further weaknesses in the City’s infrastructure that require significantly more investment than previously anticipated. Since that time the City Council has adopted a Watershed Management Plan (developed by a citizen task force with city staff and consultant) that laid out key goals and policies for improvement, as well as specific projects. In this year’s budget, the City Council appropriated funds to implement top priority projects identified in that plan. In addition, this past fall, the City Council allocated surplus funds to these needed capital improvements.

Two key challenges face the City with regard to our stormwater system. First, the City’s stormwater infrastructure is aging and, in many places, failing. Many of the City’s culverts and pipes were installed by developers as the City grew during the 1930s through the 1950s, prior to any flood and stormwater regulations. The weaknesses uncovered by Tropical Storm Lee will take years of sustained effort to resolve.

Second, the City is faced with major new state and federal regulations aimed at restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, a worthy but expensive goal. The City forecasts the need for $15 million in expenditures in the coming years to comply with these new regulations. Surrounding jurisdictions are faced with comparable costs.

With respect to repairing and replacing aging infrastructure, there are areas in the City with recurring flooding due to undersized or broken stormwater pipes. When pipes fail, water can damage private property and sinkholes can appear in streets, disrupting traffic until the repairs are made. The flooding that affected so many during Tropical Storm Lee galvanized the City to action. In the current budget, the City Council allocated $1.2 million in the Capital Improvements Program to begin to address these deficiencies. These funds will go to the following projects this year:

• Repair failed stormwater pipe in 100 block of W. Broad St.;

• Stormwater detention and improvements to prevent flooding on Great Falls and Little Falls Sts.;

• Stormwater pipe replacement at TJ Elementary School;

• Stormwater improvements at Douglass Ave.;

• Grant-funded “daylighting” of the Coe Branch of Tripps Run

With respect to the challenge of increased state and federal regulations, the City needs new ways to manage run-off and reduce pollution in our streams in the coming decade. To comply with water quality standards, the City will need to retrofit its existing stormwater system, reduce impervious coverage (like pavement), and slow down the volume of stormwater. The Watershed Management Plan identifies “best management practices” to meet these environmental requirements.

Considering the challenges, the key question is how to pay for improvements and regulatory requirements over the long term. To this end, in June 2009 the Council commissioned a citizen-led Watershed Advisory Committee, as mentioned above. During the subsequent two years, the committee met eight times, including one town hall meeting. The committee considered existing and future stormwater policies, regulations, and on-the-ground projects. In February 2012, the committee recommended that Council adopt the final Watershed Management Plan, laying out a wide range of funding options. The committee recommended the creation of an enterprise fund and stormwater utility fee. The City Council, in turn, directed staff in June 2012 to develop these options for further public consideration. These options would need to address infrastructure repairs, flooding reduction, and regulation compliance.

The City Council has now begun the task of evaluating staff proposals and will seek citizen input on these funding options, balancing between making needed stormwater improvements and affordability. We will evaluate the pros and cons of funding these improvements through the real estate tax or through a utility fee. The initial cost projection will be further refined to ensure cost effectiveness. The goal is to meet mandatory stormwater improvements in a way that is affordable, equitable, and based on sound, long term planning.

Please check the City’s website at www.fallschurva.gov/Stormwater for more information on the City’s strategies and options for meeting these needs, and send your comments to stormwater@fallschurchva.gov. The City will seek your input in many ways, including town hall meetings at the Community Center on this and other budget initiatives on Saturday, March 16 at 10 a.m., and Saturday, April 13 at 10 a.m. I look forward to hearing from you on this important issue.


Nader Baroukh is the Mayor of the City of Falls Church writing as an individual council member.