Falls Church Works to Fix Sanitary Sewer System

City employees LINE the piping of the sanitary sewer system on Linden Lane on March 30. (Photo: Courtesy of Lonnie Marquetti)
City employees LINE the piping of the sanitary sewer system on Linden Lane on March 30. (Photo: Courtesy of Lonnie Marquetti)

Nearly two years after the City of Falls Church Department of Public Works convened a meeting with residents to discuss problems with the City’s sanitary sewer system, some residents are still dealing with sewage backups and flooding.

But it is not for lack of the City’s Department of Public Works trying to resolve issues with the sanitary sewer system.

The task of repairing a city-wide infrastructure problem and building more infrastructure in order to deal with the City’s growing population can not be completed overnight, as evidenced by how long the City has been working to deal with the issue.

Since the 2014 meeting, the Department of Public Works has been reaching out to residents in the City’s Oak Haven and Hillwood neighborhoods – where there were the largest number of reported problems with the sanitary sewer system – in order to work toward solutions to the problems they have been having.

This included a period of time when the City arranged for residents to receive plumbing inspections in order to give residents an understanding of how the their homes were plumbed and provide a condition analysis of their sewer laterals, which is a common area of concern of infiltration.

As of August 2015, the City budgeted $35,000 for 50 plumbing inspections around the City. Because the portions of the sanitary sewer system that were being inspected were on private property and the condition analyses revealed, in some cases, that thousands of dollars of repairs were needed on a home’s plumbing, the City was was hesitant to compel residents to make repairs that would remove deficiencies which allow for infiltration of their sewage system.

“We were interested in learning what was happening in this private portion of this system,” said Michael Collins, the City’s director of public works. “One of the things that [we] were cognizant of with this program was we wanted people to feel open and interested in this program, so we were very cautious that we weren’t going to…say ‘Hey, we’re going to pay for this plumbing inspection’ and then come around behind them and say ‘Oh great, now you’ve got to do something about this.’ We got the information we were interested in. We learned a fair amount about what is happening.

“We’re hoping that the residents will learn something and address some of the problems that they found.”

Dennis Szymanski, a resident of the City’s Hillwood neighborhood, was one of the residents dealing with issues related to the sewer system.

He told the News-Press that water from the sanitary sewer system was backing up into his basement.

“There was a problem up the line, up near where South Street and Hillwood [Avenue] meet,” Szymanski said. “And once the City repaired that problem, our problem went away.”

A CITY EMPLOYEE UNLOADS fiberglass lining to rehabilitate the sanitary sewer system on Linden Lane on Wednesday, March 30. (Photo: Courtesy of Lonnie Marquetti)
A CITY EMPLOYEE UNLOADS fiberglass lining to rehabilitate the sanitary sewer system on Linden Lane on Wednesday, March 30. (Photo: Courtesy of Lonnie Marquetti)

The Department of Public Works has been dealing with the City’s portion of the sanitary sewer system by rehabilitating it by lining the old pipes with a fiberglass material, which is then pressurized to press against the old pipe.

After the lining sets in the old pipe, City employees go and cut holes in the lining where the sewer laterals were connected to the old pipe so that wastewater flows into the lining as it did before.

The City has actually been doing this work since 1999 and, according to the Department of Public Works, 36 percent of the sanitary sewer system has been rehabilitated in this way.

Collins said that the sanitary sewer system rehabilitation project also involves repairing manholes and sealing them in order to eliminate or reduce infiltration of water into the sanitary sewer system. In all but one of the past four years there has been between $400,000 – $550,000 budgeted for the sewer relining portion of the rehabilitation project. There is $550,000 proposed for the sewer relining project in the City’s FY17 budget.

There are two other solutions to the issues with the sanitary sewer system that the City is working on that could have an impact on several City residents. First, the Department of Public Works has been working on enacting a sewer lateral and replacement policy, which would require developers to inspect existing laterals prior to reuse for new construction and replace the lateral if it is deficient prior to being issued a certificate of occupancy.

“As property owners are redeveloping, whether it’s a tear down or a significant renovation, at that time we would require them to inspect their lateral and conduct any repairs if necessary,” Collins said. “So that’s where we feel we can get to a comfortable medium of not being an owner’s government compelling people and really straining their resources, but requiring those who are already investing in their home, adding to their home, to take a look at their existing infrastructure.

“And even if they incur some extra costs there, that would be protecting their investment in their home.” Collins said the implementation of the policy should begin on this summer.

The other solution is to design and construct an expansion of Dorchester Sewershed capacity, which could take until 2018 to complete. “There is an issue in terms of capacity near the Dorchester [Road], Lincoln Avenue and Great Falls [Street] area,” said Jason Widstrom, program and engineering contact for the Department of Public Works. “So we would like to build some additional capacity.”

Widstrom said that there are three options for adding capacity to the Dorchester Sewershed. One option is called pipe bursting, where new line is slipped through the old pipe, breaking the old pipe so that it can be replaced by a larger pipe. A second option is constructing a parallel line to the existing sewer line that runs along the W&OD trail, an idea which has been met with resistance by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, according to Widstrom. The third option is to create a parallel line somewhere else in that area of the City.

“There are couple ways to skin the cat here, but we would need to look at what’s feasible with the public and cost with the location of each one,” Widstrom said. “I think we’ve set aside roughly $2 million to do this type of work.”

Despite all of the work the City has been doing to manage and solve issues with the sanitary sewer system, not everyone is pleased. One City resident, Anthony Cincotta, has been documenting the City’s sewer and stormwater woes and corresponding with City staff about the issue since the late 1970s. He recently created a documentary that is on YouTube about the City’s sewage and stormwater woes.

Cincotta, a resident of the City’s Oak Haven neighborhood, told the News-Press that every time there is a sewer backup on manhole #677 on Lincoln Avenue he also experiences a backup at his house on Dorchester Road. He said that in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s he took measures to try to solve the problem and has been “frustrated” with the City’s response to the sewer issue.

“Many years ago I had a plumber install a manual backup valve, so if I’m home and I’m around I can close the manual backup valve and that closes off the sewer pipe,” Cincotta said. “So if I close off the sewer pipe in a sense it doesn’t back up there.”

Although he has corresponded with several City officials and employees throughout the years to solve these issues, with varying degrees of success, Cincotta is pessimistic about the City’s prospects for solving this issue.

“This has been going on for a long time and they said they were going to solve it,” Cincotta said. “But solving it may not happen until like 50 years from now when all of the houses have changed.”