Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Get Involved to Help Stormwater Task Force Succeed

By Dave Gustafson

“A task force is where issues go to die a slow death in prioritization exercises.”

That’s what one of my neighbors whose house flooded in July warned me in October as I mentioned that City Council had just approved creating a Stormwater Task Force.

Now that I’m on that new task force, I hope we can prove him wrong.

On July 8, stormwater and sewage invaded dozens of Falls Church homes as a 200-year storm walloped our city with more than four inches of rain in some areas. Six months later, how is Falls Church faring in its preparations for its next major, costly storm?

From my perspective, the biggest success remains the ongoing engagement of concerned citizens as well as city leaders and staff.

Leaders and staff deserve kudos for their quick — and continued —action, including:

• Waiving bulk collection and building permit fees for flooded homes

• Holding a town hall meeting soon after the storm and visiting flood-damaged neighborhoods

• Installing some water-resistant sanitary sewer manhole covers

• Repairing a damaged bridge on S. Oak St.

• Hiring a firm to conduct initial engineering assessments in neighborhoods at risk of flooding again

• Launching a backflow preventer rebate program for sewage-affected homes

• Ongoing operational maintenance of the stormwater and sanitary sewer systems

• Creating the new Stormwater Task Force

Many homes damaged on July 8 had flooded before, yet the historic storm galvanized citizens to seek lasting solutions from their city. The seriousness of our city’s flooding issues was underscored by 38 citizens applying for a handful of volunteer positions on the task force, which met for the first time in December.

Councilmembers Dan Sze, Letty Hardi and Ross Litkenhous, and City Manager Wyatt Shields deserve special thanks for spending so many hours interviewing dozens of concerned citizens. The task force they assembled includes an impressive mix of expertise in climate change, water management, engineering, communications, software development, real estate and more.

So what will our task force do? For starters, we have indeed been tasked with a prioritization exercise.

We will discuss criteria for ranking eight stormwater projects identified by city staff after the July storm. Two small projects could be done with the city’s own engineering staff: Laura Drive/Poplar Drive and Lincoln/West.

Six larger projects would require hiring engineering consultants:

• East Columbia/Harrison Branch

• Ellison Branch/Lincoln Avenue

• Two areas on Hillwood Avenue

• Sherrow Avenue/South Virginia Avenue

• Trammel Branch

Should our task force consider any other stormwater projects? Email Mike Domenica, the city’s liaison, at mdomenica@fallschurchva.gov.

How exactly should we prioritize these eight projects, and any others that citizens may suggest? Among the evaluation criteria being considered:

• Severity of flooding damage

• Flooding frequency

• Timing of related projects

• Constructability

• Environmental impacts

• Neighborhood acceptance

• Impact on other properties

• Operations and maintenance requirements

• Capital/lifecycle costs

Knowing of at least two citizens getting sick from sewage exposure, I’ve suggested that health concerns be considered as well.

Citizens should also be aware that city efforts to protect against residential flooding are designed for 10-year storms — less severe than the July 8 storm. That’s typical for many municipalities’ designs.

The task force will also discuss the city’s stormwater fee. In December, city staff told us that an increase in the stormwater fee will be required and that a consultant is conducting a rate study.

The task force has been given an aggressive timeline that includes advising City Council by May on stormwater projects to prioritize, along with updates to the 2012 Watershed Management Plan that focused on water quality issues.

Outside of the task force’s assignments, what else must happen in the short term to ensure that our city’s aging infrastructure can better handle more stormwater and sewage due to a denser population and more frequent, more severe storms caused by climate change? My suggestions include:

• Adding more water-resistant manhole covers and conducting flow rate studies in sewage-affected neighborhoods

• Developing and enforcing a plan to remedy older homes’ illicit drain connections and cracked laterals that eat up precious sanitary sewer capacity and cause dangerous sewage backups in homes with kids and seniors

• Investing more in prevention measures to keep leaves, garbage and muddy runoff from construction from entering storm sewers

• Creating a long-term funding plan to maintain infrastructure that can handle more residents and more severe storms

To ensure the long-term health of Falls Church’s sanitary sewer and stormwater system, citizens must remain involved. How can you do that? Attend meetings. Ask questions. Request information. Talk to your neighbors. Share what you’ve learned about protecting your home from flooding on the Little City Waterproofers listserv.

The Stormwater Task Force’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 23, in Council Chambers.

Dave Gustafson is a member of Falls Church’s Stormwater Task Force.