My View: Tackling the sewage issue together

My View: Tackling the sewage issue together
Allison Silberberg (Courtesy Photo)

By Mayor Allison Silberberg (File photo)

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. More than 800 cities in our country use the same type of 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 into 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 when I became vice mayor in 2013, I was appalled like many others 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 gave the city a permit to allow the outfalls to continue as long as the city started the process of abatement, albeit without state funding. VDEQ required the city to fix three of the four outfalls first. The fourth outfall, which is at Oronoco Bay, was not included in the directive.

I am proud of the fact that city council has taken action this year to finally move us forward. Here are three measurable actions to point out.

First, on May 14, council voted unanimously to submit a plan of action with regard to the three outfalls that were mandated.

But we did not stop there. Jack Sullivan, a resident who served on the city’s task force studying the mandated sewer upgrades, had been outspoken about the need to address Oronoco Bay. Council and I agreed, and we requested that City Manager Mark Jinks take a good look at how we could accelerate a plan for the Oronoco Bay outfall.

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

Second, on September 28, City Councilor Paul Smedberg and I met with our state legislators, and we all agreed that we would seek funding from the Virginia General Assembly for all four outfalls, not just the mandated 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 Bay will cost about $130 million and could go up or down, depending upon the solution.

Together, these projects will cost more than $300 million. Our city’s annual capital budget is typically between $120 million and $150 million. But we must fix these outfalls.

Finally, this month, city council voted unanimously to accelerate the timetable for mitigating the Oronoco Bay outfall by 14 years. We are doing more than what is required, and are committed to doing so because it is right.

And in the meantime, we are taking interim steps to mitigate the issue, including requiring new developments to create separate storm and sewage lines.

Given the magnitude of these projects, our plan of action is reasonable and consistent with other cities grappling with similar issues.

As children, we are taught to leave a campsite better than 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 it in terms of 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 residents. But it could have been far worse.

Correcting these outfalls will be mammoth infrastructure projects. While it is complex, we will learn how to do it better with each outfall. With each year, new engineering ideas will come forward. I have asked Jinks 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 to tackle this together. Future generations will thank us.