Commentary: Tackling Sewage Issue Together

Commentary: Tackling Sewage Issue Together

I write as a lifelong environmentalist and as the Mayor of Alexandria. All of us have a deep and abiding obligation to our land, water, and air. It is not a burden, but rather an honor. I take this honor seriously, and I believe our conscientious citizenry does as well.

In our beloved, historic city, our combined sewage system dates back to the early 1800s. Over 800 cities in our country have the same system. Usually, our sewage goes to the treatment plant. But when it rains, 95 percent of our sewage goes to the treatment plant, and the remaining 5 percent combines with rainwater, overflows the system, and goes to the Potomac River by way of four outfalls.

The city has known about this issue for decades. I have lived here since 1989, and when I was briefed about it as the new vice mayor in 2013, I was appalled like many are now in our community. My reaction then and now is focused on moving us as fast as we can to get this fixed.

In 1994, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gave the city a permit to allow the outfalls to continue as long as the city started the process of abatement, albeit unfunded. DEQ required the city to fix three of the four outfalls first. The fourth outfall, which is at Oronoco, was not included in the directive.

I am proud of the fact that this City Council in 2016 has taken actions to finally move us forward. Here are three measurable actions to point out. First, on May 14, this council voted unanimously to submit a plan of action with regard to the three outfalls that were mandated. This council did not stop there. Jack Sullivan, a citizen who served on the city’s task force, had been outspoken about the need to address Oronoco. The council and I agreed, and we requested that the city manager take a good look at how we could accelerate a plan for Oronoco. I definitely wanted to include Oronoco.

If anyone questions whether one person can make a difference, one need not look any further than Jack Sullivan. In addition, I appreciate the whole task force’s dedication.

Second, on Sept. 28, Councilman Paul Smedberg and I met with our state legislative representatives, and we all agreed that we would seek funding from the state legislature for all four outfalls, not just the three. After all, we deserve our fair share of state funding.

The first three outfalls will cost up to $188 million. The outfall at Oronoco will cost about $130 million and could go up or down, depending upon the solution. Together, these projects will cost over $300 million. Our city’s annual capital budget is typically about $120-150 million. But fix these outfalls we must.

Third, on Nov. 9, the council voted unanimously to accelerate the timetable for Oronoco by 14 years versus the previous schedule. Therefore, we are doing more than what is required, and are committed to doing so because it is right.

While addressing Oronoco is in the future, we are taking interim steps to mitigate the issue, including requiring new development to create separate storm and sewage lines.

Given the magnitude of these projects, our plan of action is reasonable as well as consistent with other cities that are grappling with a similar issue.

As children, we are taught to leave a campsite better than the way we found it even if we did not make the mess. That is a lifelong lesson and one that is applicable here.

It is not whether we will tackle this but rather how we will tackle this in terms of the construction and financing. Fixing the outfalls is not as easy as putting a pipe in your kitchen. And make no mistake. These projects will cause aggravation for many of our citizens.

It could have been far worse. One of the original ideas was a far more disruptive digging project in the historic district. I voiced deep concerns about whether our historic homes could take it. Is there a way to get this done without so much disruption to our homes and businesses? Our staff kept working and came up with a better idea.

Correcting these outfalls will be mammoth infrastructure projects. While it is complex, we will get this accomplished. With each outfall, we will learn how to get this done better. With each year, engineering ideas will come forward. I have asked the city manager to see what other cities have learned.

This is a shared goal of our community. It will be a tough task, but we must see it through. As always, I welcome your input and guidance to help us accomplish our goals. While this will not be easy, we must begin and together, we will tackle this. Future generations will thank us.