By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
City Council and Department of Transportation and Environmental Services staff engaged in a lengthy conversation about increasing the city’s flood mitigation efforts during a work session at council’s legislative meeting on Tuesday.
A series of successive, high intensity storms in the last 14 months has left residents stranded in their cars, facing surging stormwaters in their homes and repeatedly calling on the city for help.
The flood mitigation action plan, presented by staff Tuesday, is the first part of an ongoing process to address the difficult, sometimes tragic, situations residents throughout the city have been facing, City Manager Mark Jinks said.
“We have had unprecedented storms triggered by climate change, and while these used to be fairly far apart and rare, as they become more frequent, we’re going to need to basically change the pace of what we’re doing,” Jinks said. “We’re going to have to dramatically reprioritize our stormwater work, we’re going to have to accelerate, we’re going to have to be creative.”
The city’s flood mitigation action plan involves a three-pronged approach: reprioritizing and accelerating largescale capital improvement projects, establishing an interdepartmental strike team and providing immediate assistance to residents through grants and other funding services.
Director of T&ES Yon Lambert emphasized that mitigating the impacts of flooding on the city will involve efforts both from the city and private property owners throughout the process.
“Although we have an action plan to make some quick investments and it is our every [intention] to get the trucks running as soon as we possibly can, so to speak … I need to make sure to continue to urge property owners, business owners in the city to take stock of your situation now,” Lambert said.
In 2016, the city conducted a city-wide study of its stormwater system that identified 83 problem areas in the city’s watersheds. Of the 90, there are 23 problem areas in each the Four Mile Run and Hooff’s Run watersheds.
Both Four Mile Run and Hooff’s Run are prioritized in the current CIP budget, which allocates $7.5 million in FY2025 for the two projects. However, staff is looking to move them up to FY2023, Maines said.
When Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker advocated for further acceleration of these projects, Maines said staff could look into moving them to FY2022.
Those two projects have proven even more critical in light of the recent storms. A heat map staff presented to council showed that 11 critical capacity projects identified in those two areas overlap significantly with areas that had high numbers of 311 service requests in recent months.
Maines noted that those service requests will not all be covered by the larger capacity projects but may be covered as part of the city’s spot improvement projects meant to address smaller, more localized issues.
Staff members plan to shift more resources toward these smaller projects and accelerate their implementation timelines. Prior to FY2021, the city dedicated $300,000 annually in the CIP to spot improvement projects; the FY2021 approved CIP increased spot improvement funding by $120,000 with an escalation planned over time, according to Maines.
Some funding could also potentially be diverted from the city’s water quality investments, most of which involve costly, long-term capital projects that have to be completed in order to meet state mandates.
Water quality projects make up 57% of the approved 10-year stormwater utility plan’s designated funding, totaling $57,219,567. Meanwhile, capacity and spot improvement projects make up 26%, $26,575,017, of allocated funding. Stream and channel maintenance makes up the remaining 17%, or $17,474,167.
Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman asked staff how much funding could be diverted from water quality projects to capacity and flood mitigation projects, given the city is already ahead on the state-mandated water quality plan.
Maines said it is possible to shift resources as long as the city stays on top of its water quality benchmarks.
“I think we can fight a two-front war,” Maines said. “Maybe it’s taking the troops from one front to the other front … kind of moving those over where we know we need more resources to attack, to accelerate what we need to do on the water quality side.”
In addition to the city’s prioritization of capital projects, the action plan involves expanded maintenance capacity.
The 2020 extreme rain events have resulted in more than 600 service requests through the city’s 311 system and the storm on Sept. 10 alone resulted in 315 service requests, T&ES Deputy Director Jeff DuVal said.
City staff is attempting to correct issues that have quick fixes where they can, DuVal said.
“However, many of the issues being reported are much more complex … and are going to require extensive investigation, field work, engineering analysis and design so that we’re able to identify potential solutions to implement,” DuVal said.
Staff did identify one specific area of concern when it comes to maintenance efforts: the Hooff’s Run Culvert, a large, underground double-barreled tunnel with some exposed sections that carries stormwater flow from Del Ray, Rosemont and North Ridge.
Residents around the culvert have expressed repeated concerns since 2019.
During the public comment period of the meeting, resident LaMonica Johnston stressed the need for council and staff to understand the impact flooding has had on residents.
Johnston lives on East Linden Street, near the exposed part of Hooff’s Run Culvert. On July 8, 2019, Johnston had just put her 7-month-old son down for a nap and was lying down herself when she woke to a buzzing sound in her house, she said. When she stood up, she noticed there was three inches of water in her house, and it was rising. In less than 10 minutes, the water had risen to 20 inches.
“My infant son, who was sitting next to me, almost drowned in 2019,” Johnston said. “The culvert problem is not just destroying our property. It’s not just ruining our personal belongings or our cars. It’s not just stealing our time from the days and weeks we spend cleaning it. It’s literally threatening lives.”
After the July 2019 storm, staff found large chunks of debris in multiple sections of the culvert and recognized there was a need for further inspection and cleaning. In May 2020, the city contracted RedZone Robotics to inspect the culvert and ultimately found areas with debris as well as some structural issues, DuVal said.
The city accelerated the project and procured funds for cleaning and repair. The cleaning project, which is set to start in the fall, will cost about $2 million and take four to six months to complete.
Seifeldein asked Lambert to clarify how often staff performs the kind of detailed analysis that was done on the Hooff’s Run Culvert.
Staff does not regularly perform that kind of analysis, but more comprehensive checks are being scheduled as a result of the RedZone Robotics analysis, according to Lambert.
“[What] we will be doing with our interdepartmental work team is determining whether we need to expand maintenance capacity and the intervals of maintenance for certain pieces of infrastructure within the city,” Lambert said.
Staff is also looking into more immediate ways of addressing residents’ ongoing issues in the aftermath of recent flooding, such as potentially expanding eligibility for the Backflow Preventer Program. This allows the city to pay up to 50% of the cost of installing a BFP, up to $2,000, for residents, T&ES Deputy Director Bill Skrabak said.
The city is also investigating potential federal flood relief grant funding from the Federal Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities and Flood Mitigation Assistance programs. More locally, the city is exploring the possibility of a local grants program that would use stormwater utility dollars to help residents flood- proof their homes.
“Potentially it would be a grant that we fund ourselves, similar to the Backflow Preventer Program, where, for example, if a homeowner installed one of these flood-proof doors and it cost $2,000, we might do that 50% and reimburse them,” Skrabak said.
“We think this would be one fairly quick way to get some assistance to folks to prevent future flood damage,” Skrabak continued.
In order to prioritize efforts across the city, the action plan would establish an interdepartmental strike team that would coordinate resources and find ways to accelerate projects.
Chapman recommended that, in addition the city’s internal strike team, staff look into forming an external strike team that would communicate with homeowners and civic associations. He compared it to the Alexandria Police Department’s police liaisons.
“Having that ability to communicate with a city expert is necessary, especially in the long-term,” Chapman said.
Throughout the discussion, members of City Council acknowledged that these efforts are, in some ways, coming far too late but are necessary nonetheless.
“If we’re putting blame on someone, it’s honestly on us,” Councilor Amy Jackson said. “… I guess my concern is the priorities, that they should have changed a long time ago, so I’m thankful that they’re changing now.”
“There is simply nothing we can do to protect our home as homeowners,” resident Michael Fujka said during the public discussion period. “This is a city problem that we need the city to solve.”
Jackson and Wilson both asked staff about the sewage backup issue some residents have been reporting.
Staff is moving into a new phase of its sewage system rehabilitation that will include a closer examination of improper connections between stormwater and sanitary systems on residents’ properties, Skrabak said. Wilson pushed staff to address this issue as soon as possible.
“As we create a hierarchy of the challenges we need to deal with, it seems like that ought to be number one because that should never, ever, ever happen,” Wilson said. “… Those [cases] are a whole new level of devastation for property owners who are experiencing that.”
Staff will return to council at a future work session in the fall to propose CIP and maintenance adjustments, present a neighborhood engagement and technical support framework and provide more concrete details on a potential flood mitigation grant program.
“Our residents are expecting, are demanding, [we address] it, and this is one of the most basic services we provide as a community, so we have to step up to that challenge,” Wilson said.