Most Arlingtonians recall their whereabouts on July 8, 2019, when the flash floods came. (I was walking in the rain along Fairfax Drive toward Central Library when I was astonished to see a manhole cover bobbing up and down from water pressure.)
Among the hardest hit was Westover, where an underground gusher inundated Washington Blvd. and sidewalks. That caused a power outage and severe damage to Westover Market and Beer Garden, Ayers Variety and Hardware, Toby’s Ice Cream, Pete’s Barber Shop and the Italian Store, among others.
Forty-two months later, the county’s concrete response is nearing completion by early spring. On the McKinley Rd. athletic fields at Cardinal School, earth-mover crews from contractor W.B. Hopke have worked since December 2021 (after the new school was finished). They’re installing a 21st century stormwater vault on the Torreyson Run watershed. It comprises 477,775 cubic feet of water storage capacity made up of 670 precast pieces and a smaller system with 54,745 cubic feet of storage capacity and 78 precast pieces. On top, sod for athletic fields will be laid for the fall.
Many, but not all, observers are encouraged.
In response to the flooding, presidents of the Highland Park-Overlee Knolls, Leeway Overlee, Tara Leeway Heights and Westover Village in August 2019 sent the county board a letter asking for an intensified drainage effort. They pointed to an increase in impermeable surfaces, loss of trees, and warming atmosphere. They called the current pipe system “woefully inadequate and incoherent.”
County and school boards agreed to spend $16 million, part of at $50 million stormwater bond, with a goal of creating a “flood-resilient Arlington.” “It is an effort to strategically use public land for multi-purpose goals to overcome space constraints and expand the capacity of the stormwater management system,” says Aileen Winquist, stormwater communications manager for the Environmental Services Department. It is among the largest such vaults in the Mid-Atlantic and is “on budget.”
“The hardest part,” said Hopke’s project manager David Steger, “is the logistics of managing the flow of materials into an area with very little space. We could only bring in six trucks at a time to deliver materials.” Added Jim Gesselman, senior project manager for the supplier StormTrap, “The system is the best I have seen from an installation standpoint. They are level, plumb, and the pieces are extremely tight.”
Peter Rousselot, who helped launch the critics’ group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future after the flooding, is awaiting more information on engineering questions and long-term demographic impact. “Part of the issue is the mismatch of pipe sizes, with a larger, newer stormwater-runoff pipe feeding into a much smaller one under the shopping center,” he told me. “If the county has diverted enough runoff into the vault and away from these mismatched mains, then the area may avoid a repeat of that horrific flood. But vaults are finite. Once full, they cannot hold more water.”
Winquist says the notion of a pipe mismatch is “a misconception related to a map labeling error from the Storm Sewer Capacity study.” It mistakenly labeled 7-foot-by-10-foot box culverts as being less than 36 inches in diameter when in fact the entry is seven feet. An apology was sent to neighbors in 2019.
Though only future floods will prove success, “the construction process has been on time with no major missteps,” says neighbor John Ford, who heads the Arlington Civic Federation. “It will be a useful template for other flood mitigation facilities in Arlington.”
Treavor Wooden, the “always faithful” combat veteran who panhandles at I-66 in East Falls Church, continues his ups and downs.
Last month, he told me of his hospitalization for melanoma and a bone marrow transplant. But that has only delayed—not derailed—his plan to become a commercial truck driver. He proudly showed me the license he earned from a training course.
He’s grateful to the 65 donors who helped him with more than $4,000 via the Go Fund Me campaign launched by neighbors Katherine and Genevieve.