Every day when Alexandria City High School students and staff cross the plaza to the main entrance of the King Street campus, they walk over an underground 450,000- gallon water retention tank, also called a cistern.
The cistern was designed to capture and reuse water that runs off the school’s hardscape, or paved areas. It was a prominent green design element when the building, which was then known as T.C. Williams High School, opened in the fall of 2007. The cistern was described in the June 18, 2009, edition of School Construction News:
“Perhaps the most frequently mentioned green feature of the building is the 450,000- gallon cistern buried beneath the building that collects rainwater runoff.
… The T.C. math and science departments use it to teach modern lessons about water flow rates, climatology and water quality studies. It also provides more than 5 million gallons of water a year for non-potable uses including toilets and irrigation. Coupled with T.C.’s waterless urinals and low-flow lavatories, the cistern provides significant savings – 6 million gallons per year – in public utility costs.”
The King Street building was an innovative and green school when it opened 15 years ago. The cistern and other environmentally responsive design features brought the school a Leadership in Environmental Engineering and Design Gold Award. LEED, administered by the Green Building Certification Institute, claims to be the most widely used green building rating system in the world.
Fast forward to today and, unfortunately, the cistern is not working. In fact, it has not worked for several years. On Jan. 28, 2022, ACPS Director of Educational Facilities John Finnigan issued this statement about the cistern:
“The installation of the cistern pre-dates most of the Educational Facilities staff members who remain with the organization. Based on research, it is noted that several years ago, the cistern stopped working. Repairs were made, and it was functional before breaking down again. Additional repairs were made, and it was clear that a major investment was required to address all of the issues with the system. This investment has not yet been made and we have used City water exclusively since that time.”
Infrastructure systems, especially those designed to promote green environmental goals and reduce operating costs, must be appropriately maintained. That it was “not on our watch” when a forward-thinking water recycling system broke down is not a reason to allow it to be nonfunctional for years.
The cistern’s operation directly relates to the issues involving the future of nearby Taylor Run. If the water runoff from the ACHS King Street campus to Taylor Run was reduced, it would slow the erosion that created much of the momentum for the now-paused Taylor Run “improvement” project.
If the cistern was operating as designed, the King Street campus would be a better environmental neighbor. It was designed as a water recycling system to reduce the operating expense of the 462,000 square foot King Street building. The years that cistern did not operate are years when the savings it was designed to produce were lost.
“As a matter of fiduciary responsibility ACPS should look at the cistern and determine the cost of repairing it and how many years of water savings would be required to pay back the expense,” Alexandria architect David Peabody, who originally helped organize support for a green school, told me.
Alexandria’s environment deserves better from us. If it is repaired and maintained, the cistern’s future water expense savings are potentially significant. The School Board should direct ACPS staff to determine the cost to repair the cistern and the board should include that expense in its capital improvements budget.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006 and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@ gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available for free at https:// aboutalexandria.substack.com/