Design realities could conflict with promises to speed up stormwater improvements in Alexandria

“Make it happen faster.”

It’s been the rallying cry for countless local residents who have suffered from multiple floods in the last few years. City leaders have promised to expedite stormwater projects, but now admit that many improvements could be years away at best.

After floods last Sunday, Major Justin Wilson pledged to accelerate the timetable for major stormwater capacity projects, but said the projects will still take time to complete. Wilson repeated the pledge in an interview with WAMU on Friday.

But how much those projects can be accelerated is still unclear for city staff.

“All of the big capacity projects are equivalent to a school in terms of design,” said Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. “You’re dealing with conflicts on multiple levels. We’re fast-tracking that as much as we can… It’s about figuring out how to compress the design process and once ground is broken, there are new problems.”

In the meantime, Lambert said the city is working on moving forward with spot projects to make smaller fixes — though he said the scale of that could be dependent on the results of the federal infrastructure bill.

Lambert outlined the timeline for several projects at a recent meeting of the Ad Hoc Stormwater Utility and Flood Mitigation Advisory Group.

“[These] could be one or two years in design,” Lambert said. “Then a year in procurement for a construction contractor. Then, depending on complexity of the project, could be 10-24 months to deliver. Overall, it does take three-to-five years to plan, design, and implement these projects.”

Lambert said the smaller projects take less time, with in-house design in one-to-six months and three-to-eight months for construction.

While the city — via AlexRenew — has been handling the combined sewer system problem in Old Town, reports have previously indicated flooding is a city-wide problem. The City of Alexandria Storm Sewer Capacity Analysis in 2016 identified several areas that were particularly vulnerable, leading to some public frustration that it took repeated, disastrous floods for the city to fast-track major stormwater improvement projects.

“I can’t imagine the anxiety and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) of people watching the weather,” said City Council member Amy Jackson. “We put a lot of money into infrastructure… but it’s been kicked down the road so much. I wish we started this a long time ago, but it will take a few years [to implement]. It will get done, and it will be done correctly, but not as quickly as a lot of people hope.”

Jackson said the issues with flooding have become so prevalent in the city it’s become an almost ubiquitous discussion.

“This is an indicator, of sorts: everyone is dealing with it or knows someone dealing with it,” Jackson said. “At your local watering hole, everyone is talking about it.”

City Council member Canek Aguirre said he similarly sympathizes with frustrated locals.

“It’s extremely frustrating that our residents have to go through such devastating effects on their lives,” Aguirre said. “It will still take an extended period of time to address. We’ll be able to get some spot projects in the next year or so, but some of the larger capacity [projects] will take longer.”

The issue has also become a point of contention in the local election, with both Republican City Council candidate Darryl Nirenberg and Republican Mayoral candidate Annetta Catchings saying the city should be doing more to address flooding issues.

According to Nirenberg’s website:

This is a complicated problem caused by aging infrastructure, overdevelopment and climate change.  But, enough is enough. No one living in our city should have to deal with this over and over with no end in sight.

City Hall needs to take immediate, actionable steps to improve flood control by:

  1. Appointing a Water Infrastructure Czar with direct accountability to the Mayor and the Council to take charge of this issue;
  2. Working with our representatives in Congress to seek emergency and long-term Federal funding to assist the City in addressing flooding; and,
  3. Instructing City staff to develop a comprehensive citywide response plan, with defined deliverables and timelines, by January 1, 2022.

It is the basic responsibility of city government to provide residents with sound infrastructure.  Instead of wasting time and resources on divisive policies like removing school resource officers; pursuing dedicated bus lanes on Duke Street; replacing travel lanes with rarely used bike lanes; and, putting adult housing on school grounds, City Council needs to focus on quality of life issues — including making it a priority to fix our storm drains now.

Catchings said stormwater infrastructure would be her top priority if elected.

“Over the weekend many of us enjoyed our bike adventures, our tennis groups and backyard gatherings; however, too many of our friends and neighbors were knee deep in sewage, drying out their homes and basements,” Catchings wrote on Facebook. “Yes we need to finally #FixThePipes But our neighbors need immediate relief until then. Programs like BFP that reimburse residents should they install a Backflow Preventer should not then turn around and penalize the owner should it fail when we know the problem is bigger than that. If I’m elected Mayor fixing our pipes will be my personal pet project and my number 1 focus.”