“It’s a one time thing – it just happens a lot,” Suzanne Vega wrote in the song “Cracking.”
Vega’s line seems to have been co-opted by the City of Alexandria, as it’s become the mantra of city leaders whenever weather events overwhelm Alexandria’s storm sewer system.
“Our staff has reviewed the rainfall data and preliminarily characterized the thunderstorm of Thursday, July 23, 2020 as between a 50-yr (2%-chance- per-year) and a 100-yr (1%-chance-per-year) storm,” Yon Lambert, director of Transportation and Environmental Services, recently wrote to a resident who had contacted him about increased frequency of flooding.
Except that this was the second time in two weeks that some residents’ basements had flooded, and the second time in two years that there has been widespread flooding throughout the city. Ask restaurants near Old Town’s waterfront how many times they’ve had water at – or inside – their doors in the last 15 years, let alone 50.
Clearly, if city leaders think these are one in 50- or 100-year events, then they need to revise their calculations.
In Alexandria, we have a perfect storm of increased severe weather events caused by global warming combined with city policies that have exacerbated the effects of these storms.
● A city manager and mayor who are both on record saying they want to dramatically increase Alexandria’s population density, despite the fact that we are already the most densely populated city in Virginia.
● City leadership that sacrifices preserving wetlands, streams and mature trees in favor of development every time there’s a choice to be made. Examples of this behavior include, respectively, the Potomac Yard Metro station site, the Karig Estates development and the 150-year-old tree about to be axed at T.C. Williams High School. In each instance there were less environmentally damaging alternatives.
● An antiquated storm sewer system that’s been overdue for an overhaul for decades. The city was finally forced to stop kicking this particular can down the road when the Virginia legislature and then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) imposed a condensed timeline on Alexandria to eliminate four outfalls that dump large amounts of raw sewage into the Potomac River during, you guessed it, major weather events.
City residents were hit with a sharp increase in their sewer fees two years ago, but obviously that $12 million per year is not being spent on flood mitigation.
When we replace pervious surfaces such as grass, topsoil, mulched groundcover and planted areas with impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt used in development, water runs off instead of soaking in.
When we destroy wetlands, we eliminate nature’s best system of dealing with excess water from extreme weather events.
And when we neglect infrastructure, which is a core function of government, while approving every development proposal that comes before us, we are asking for many repeats of “one time” events.
Weather patterns that create extreme storm events are a fact of life in the year 2020. It’s time for city leaders to wake up and realize that, while they can’t control the weather, they can change their own policies that are exacerbating the weather’s effects.
A starting point would be to deny overdevelopment projects that are currently in the city’s approval pipeline – starting with the Heritage that seeks to more than triple current housing units on that Old Town site – while we reassess our priorities.
If current city leaders refuse to change course, then residents can take heart in the knowledge that in addition to a national election this fall, there’s a local election next year.