Our View: Let’s get started on a faster Potomac cleanup

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(File photo)

he 2016 presidential election was the wildest in recent memory, culminating in Donald Trump’s upset victory in November. This week, as Trump is sworn in as the 45th president, right across the Potomac River, Alexandria is dealing with an urgent issue that has turned local and state politics upside down.

In a twist that must leave Republicans in Richmond doubly delighted this week, two GOP legislators have teamed with the environmental watchdog group the Potomac River Keepers in an effort to expedite Alexandria’s cleanup of sewage outfalls. Yes, at first blush it appears that state Republicans are to the left of liberal Alexandria on an important environmental issue.

Except, of course, it’s not that simple.

To recap, Alexandria’s sewer system is about as antiquated as our above ground architecture. While the latter is quaint and appealing, the former has become an environmental catastrophe. Every time it rains, our sewer system is overwhelmed and raw waste pours from four city outfalls into the Potomac River.

City officials estimate that more than 10 million gallons flow annually from Alexandria’s outfalls into the Potomac, and that almost half of that comes from the Oronoco Bay site, which is currently last in line for an overhaul. Not surprisingly, the majority of water quality tests conducted by the city between 2007 and 2012 showed an unsafe level of e.coli bacteria present, according to a study cited by the Potomac River Keepers.

Alexandria’s elected officials, all Democrats at the local and state level, are acutely aware of the problem and agree that it needs to be fixed. The quarrel is over how quickly the outfalls are overhauled and how to pay for it.

The Republicans sponsoring bills in the state legislature, state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-28) and Del. David Albo (R-42), both represent districts that border the Potomac River. So, while partisanship may be an element, both Stuart and Albo also have a responsibility to their constituents to push for a quicker cleanup.

Stuart’s bill in the state Senate sets a logistically impossible time- frame of three and a half years to shore up water quality, with a total cutoff in state funding to Alexandria as the consequence for noncompliance. Albo’s House bill would give Alexandria 10 years to comply with water safety levels and currently lacks a penalty.

With Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) wielding his pen to veto bills outright or alter them by line item, we think the chances of Stuart’s bill becoming law are very slim.

Pressuring Alexandria into taking faster action on the sewage outfalls than the city otherwise would is not necessarily a bad thing. But Stuart’s bill in particular is draconian, especially if Richmond isn’t willing to help pay for the upgrades.

City leaders have known for years that the sewer system needed to be dealt with, but instead deferred action. Now, it appears that those affected by our inaction have lost patience with us. It is difficult to blame them.

Setting aside Stuart’s non-starter proposal, maybe our city government should establish a timeline toward compliance within Albo’s 10-year timeframe. While a 10-year wait for a cleaner Potomac is not ideal, Alexandria will be logistically and fiscally hard-pressed to meet even that deadline.

With that in mind, if environmentally minded Republicans like Albo and Stuart want the sewage upgrades completed faster, they should meet the city halfway and work to secure additional funding for the project.

Fast tracking the sewer overhaul would undoubtedly impact Alexandria’s ability to rebuild schools, fund a new Metro station and shore up city buildings. But it appears we may be left with little choice.

If the end result is a cleaner Potomac River, sooner, then let’s get started.

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