Our View: Going with the flow will not fix flooding

Our View: Going with the flow  will not fix flooding
East Monroe Avenue.(Photo/Mary Burner)

By now most Alexandria residents have seen the photos: cars with water halfway up the sides, murky floodwater leaving stains and bacteria across swaths of the city, basements with two feet of water.

One resident said he saw what looked like raw sewage spraying up from manhole covers during last week’s “100-year” flood event, like a geyser in a national park – except this was dangerous filth being spewed instead of pure underground springwater.

Whereas flooding in Alexandria used to be mostly limited to streets near the waterfront in Old Town, in the past couple of years it’s become a city-wide occurrence.

Roadways are as likely to be flooded in parts of Del Ray and Parkfairfax as in Old Town, and basements in Rosemont and Seminary Ridge are taking repeated hits. Water rescues are now more common from cars on city streets than in the Potomac River.

Few things are more demoralizing than dealing with repeated water damage in one’s home, and residents are rightly upset. And yet, while this is not what those with soaking wet basements want to hear, patience is also needed.

There is wisdom in many old sayings, and the “Serenity Prayer” by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is one of those: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Taking these one at a time, there are facets of this flooding that are beyond anyone’s control and fall in the “things I cannot change” category.

Global warming is almost certainly behind disruptive weather patterns that are dumping unusually large amounts of rain on this region in exceptionally short periods of time. It’s as if the whole D.C. Metro region is periodically being plopped down in the Caribbean and pounded with rainfall usually seen on tropical islands or in lush rainforests.

It’s weird. And yes, we as a city must react and adapt, but this is impossible overnight or even quickly.

What can we change about this situation?

Our city leaders are cognizant that this is urgent and, to their credit, are pursuing several productive avenues simultaneously. First, per city enews bulletins, they’re sending out crews to check culverts, clean up debris and assess drain openings. Flooding was discussed at last Saturday’s City Council public hearing, and a special session with public input is scheduled for Sept. 22. Council and city staff are apparently looking for ways to expedite the existing sewer remediation plans and to speed up scheduled cleaning of the city’s sewers.

In addition, a recalibrating of what constitutes a “100-year flood” is also apparently underway, a needed change as it’s ludicrous to keep referring to the new normal of deluge-type rain events as if they’re rare or unexpected.

These are needed and appreciated steps. However, they fall in the category of necessary but not sufficient actions. They are more than band aids but fall well short of what’s needed.

Rather than simply discuss short-term remediation steps that are being taken, the larger issue – the proverbial elephant in the room – simply must be tackled as well: the impact the city’s aggressive pursuit of densification is having on flooding.

There are two distinct but related facets to this problem. The first is continued destruction of Alexandria’s extremely limited open space, mature trees and wetlands. Our continued chipping away at our city’s natural environment is leaving nature unable to absorb unexpected rainfall.

The second facet is continued shoehorning of oversized housing projects throughout the city. The notion that because developments must come with a stormwater management plan means there won’t be ill effects defies logic.

Constructing a new development project that houses, say, 150 people where around six people previously lived – such as what’s proposed for Seminary Road near Fire Station 206 – means that about 25 times more water and sewer waste will be generated from that site and fed into Alexandria’s already over-capacity and outdated sewer system.

This type of infrastructure overload is another type of unhelpful new norm in Alexandria.

Common sense tells us that continued cutting of trees, filling of wetlands and building of huge projects is going to worsen flooding in Alexandria. Urban planning concepts, complete with beautiful renderings and algorithms developed in far-away institutes, often sound great until they meet with on-ground facts.

May our city’s leaders have the wisdom to know the difference.