Frustrated Residents Call for Action on Stormwater Problems

Falls Church Times Staff

October 18, 2011

Yesterday evening’s town hall on stormwater issues revealed many problems far removed from Falls Church’s two flood plains.

The meeting, which drew a large crowd at the Community Center, had been called primarily due to a tropical storm on September 8 that left many flood plain houses with flooded basements.  However, most of the homeowners who vented their frustrations to City officials came from neighborhoods distant from Tripps and Four Mile Runs and recounted problems that in some cases have persisted for decades.

Many residents reported both storm and sewer water flooding their homes and standing water on or near their properties.

Joan Nieman of Hillwood Avenue said she had 18″ of black sewer water in her basement and can still smell it

“We are in jeopardy,” she said.  “Stonewalling brought us here.  We’ve had this problem for years.  I want it fixed.  I want it fixed now.”

Flooding problems are not confined to homes.  Ed Bouchard, who has a business on Douglas Avenue, said he has experienced flooding for the last six or seven years.  “It comes over the street, over the curb, under our door,” Bouchard said.  “Every time there’s significant rain our office floods.  I’d like to know what the City plans to do.”  He said that the problems began after the Whittier tract was completed along Hillwood Avenue.

Nieman’s home and Bouchard’s business are not on a flood plain.  Susan Douglas’ home on Cameron Road is.

“They say this is ‘The Little City’ that could.  I’d like to see it proved,” she said.  She has learned that her $20,000 in losses are not covered by the flood insurance that she was obliged to purchase because the City redesignated the house as being on a flood plain in 2004.

“Somebody asked me if I have a lawyer,” said Douglas.  “I think I have a lot of company here that would be interested in having someone take a look at what’s going on in Falls Church.”

Revenue commissioner Tom Clinton, another Hillwood resident, said had he had two feet of water in his basement on September 8 and that he has experienced frequent flooding since the completion of a City project several years ago.

“Their problem became our problem,” he said.  “I’ve brought it to the City’s attention and nothing’s been done.  This is not the city I grew up in.  I consider it a quality of life issue. If it costs more taxes I’m willing to pay some, let’s get this thing solved,” Clinton said to applause.

In response to these and many other complaints, City Public Works Director Bill Hicks and City Manager Wyatt Shields said that they were aware of many of the problems but that there were no quick answers.

Concerning sewer backups, Shields said that prior to the late 70s houses could have stormwater drains that connected to the sanitary sewer.  Anywhere from 40 to 60% of the City’s homes have storm drains connecting to the sewer system, according to City utility engineer Rodney Collins.

“It’s about levels of service,” said Shields, regarding the overall problem.  “September 8 exceeded our standards.  In some respects it’s the wrong context in which to talk about the stormwater management issues.  The good news is we have an effort well under way to take a comprehensive look a look at our stormwater systems.  That’s not just starting, it’s in the homestretch.”

At the end of the meeting Mayor Nader Baroukh thanked the citizens for their comments and cited four topics for future discussion.

1)  The pros and cons of an ordinance that would require severing the connections between the stormwater system and the sewers.  This would include a review of the possible legal constraints against such action.

2)  Requiring that developers pay a pro-rata share for stormwater management.  The City would research how other jurisdictions have approached the issue.

3)  Identifying where the major problems are, in addition to those referenced in the meeting, and re-evaluating the City’s standards for stormwater system capacity.

4)  How implementing major stormwater improvements would impact the budget and the Capital improvements Program, including the possibility of a holding a referendum.

Prior to the discussion Hicks briefed the attendees on the recent flooding and the City’s ongoing efforts to control stormwater.  He said that the frequently used phrase “100 year event” to describe September 8 does not mean that such a severe flood will occur only once in a century, rather that there is a 1% chance of it happening every year.

The City’s system is designed to cope with an event that would have a 10% chance of happening in a given year.  Falls Church has had more than its share of major storms since 2000, having experienced four severe events during the past decade.

Hicks said that the City has received a $1.7 million grant for stream improvements on the Pearson and Coe Branches of Tripps Run and plans to spend $8 million on implementing 21 projects in its watershed management plan over the next eight years.  He noted that Falls Church also works constantly to maintain the existing system, but added that homeowners should maintain proper drainage systems on their property.

Hicks’ Powerpoint presentation is available on the City’s Stormwater and Floodplain Management page.

A video of the nearly two hour meeting is available here under “City Webcasts.”

Council Work Sessions –  After the town hall the City Council held two work sessions, one public, one closed.

During the open session the members first discussed a resolution to adopt the Northern Virginia Regional Water Supply Plan, the primary purpose of which is ensure adequate and safe drinking water.  The city manager advised the Council that the City’s supply is in good shape, due to improvements in plumbing fixtures that have resulted in less water usage.  The city manager said that the Washington Aqueduct, which supplies Falls Church’s water, had its peak day in the 1970s.

City CFO Richard La Condré then briefed the Council on the first quarter financial report for FY 2012.  While some revenues are exceeding estimates, La Condré said it is too early to identify any trend.  Personal property taxes are $325,000 higher than budgeted, due in part to a higher rate.  Sales taxes are $12,000 ahead of last year’s collections.  Expenditures show an underspending for the first quarter.  The CFO estimated that the City has $500,000 in additional revenue, as of Monday.

The closed session concerned the Child Development Center question and issues relating to the City’s water system.

October 18, 2011 


12 Responses to “Frustrated Residents Call for Action on Stormwater Problems”

  1. ng on October 18th, 2011 10:14 pm

    I just watched some of the video. I think this discussion of possibly requiring people to disconnect stairwell drains from the sewer (to keep rainwater out of sewer drains) is a delay tactic on the part of the City and delusional on the part of residents. It’s also a way for the City to push the problem back on the homeowners. The fact is any home built before 1978 that has an outside drain is probably connected to the sewer as that was code back then. We are all part of the problem (unless we have a newish house), but the City is never going to get everyone to shell out thousands to correct what once met code. Disconnecting stairwell drains is just the start – they then need to be reconnected to a sump pump, dry-well, or gravity-fed drain (unless we want the water flooding basements under the door with nowhere else to go). This would require tearing up yards, jack hammering basements to connect piping to sump pumps, etc. I would think it would be a minimum of $4k per homeowner, but probably more. It will never happen, or at least not on a significant enough scale to solve the problem. A huge % of homes in the City were built before 1978, but only a small % had sewer backups. Those that didn’t will fight tooth and nail to not have to fix this. Not saying this is right, but that’s how it is (and yes, I was among those with a flooded basement)

    One such solution for the sewer water in basements issue would be for the City to install back-flow devices to prevent backups in homes where they know they have issues. This prevents sewage from backing up into homes in the first place. I happen to know that the City did just this 30 years ago on at least one home on Westmorland St after a massive backflow occurred (sewage above hip level in the bsmt). I’m not sure if this came up in the meeting, but it is an obvious measure that should and could be taken (I suspect the City is crossing its fingers that there won’t be demands for this).

  2. TFC on October 19th, 2011 8:37 am

    I doubt the City could enforce any disconnect order. What would they do about the folks who could not afford the thousands it would cost…condemn the house? Make them leave? Not gonna happen. Election ahead too….doubt anyone would embrace that idea on their platform.
    City will study the problem and, I hope, tell citizens what it would cost in additional RE tax to address various problems. They will probably do a tiered plan from lowest cost to highest cost. This would, of course, be on top of the increase expected for the coming year…ouch.

  3. dlewis on October 19th, 2011 10:08 am

    I’m not sure why the city would even get involved in the sewage backup issue. Homeowners should handle that themselves – if they don’t want a potential sewage backup, they’ll either pay $$ to mitigate it or live with it. Just because the building code before 1978 allowed this doesn’t mean that the city is responsible – it’s a homeowner responsibility so I don’t get why homeowners feel that it’s a city issue. Building codes change all the time – why should the city pay for changes to homes that don’t meet current code? To me, that’s a separate issue from storm water conduits such as Tripp’s run that overflowed and flooded homes. That’s probably a city responsibility to improve that.

  4. ng on October 19th, 2011 10:46 am

    You could argue that they should pay for backflow devices to individual homes because the problem indicates that the sewage lines under the street do not have adequate capacity.

    I think there is a misunderstanding about bringing drains up to code by disconnecting – that will not likely solve a home’s problem as it will just backflow up the toilet or tub, whichever drain is lowest. The idea is to have enough disconnected that the volume of rain water going into the sewer is reduced enough to resolve the issue for the community. But, as I said earlier, it will never happen.

  5. HR Falls Church on October 19th, 2011 11:01 am

    Homeowners need to take the bulk of the accountability and not try and socialize their losses and responsibilities with the rest of the city population. The recent storms were once in a decade (or more event) – the city cant afford to fix these events. If so, why not earthquake proof every home for 6.0 quake?. The rain is NOT the city’s fault. I dont know why a homeowner wouldn’t fix this themselves it is truly a continuous ongoing problem. Maybe the homeowners should “Occupy City Hall” and ask form ore handouts

  6. ng on October 19th, 2011 11:25 am

    Fair enough, but the discussion should have included an explanation of the fix needed (backflow device). It seemed that many in the meeting thought they could just disconnect their exterior drain from the sewer and be done with backflows. That’s a total misunderstanding.

  7. dlewis on October 19th, 2011 12:23 pm

    Just so i understand, are you saying that due to capacity issues and stormwater being put into the sewer, then any home could have an overflow through any sewer connected drain in their house regardless of when it was built and how it is currently hooked into the sewer system? Did the code call for homes to have backflow devices after 1978?

  8. KRPC on October 19th, 2011 12:27 pm

    While a homeowner should ensure that gutters, yard and French drains if necessary are set up for water to stay out of the house, the city is responsible for storm drain infrastructure and handling the community’s volume of storm water. The overflow and flooding problems that exist are not evident only during a “100-year storm” or exceptional events. There are residents and businesses that now experience flooding on a somewhat regular basis. The city’s storm drains and small streams in many spots can no longer handle the runoff, which has grown along with increased development of buildings and bigger houses. While I support more development here, the city absolutely has a responsibility to make sure that it has adequate storm water systems to keep up with the growing amount of impervious surfaces.

  9. J. Cipriano on October 19th, 2011 12:37 pm

    I was not able to attend the meeting, but I can tell you that in my neighborhood (just north of the lowest point of Hillwood Ave.) the amount of water running downhill through our backyards from Broad Street, and in particular the Tollgate development ,has increased dramatically in the 14 years we have lived in our home. We and other neighbors have tried various options to re-grade and manage the waterflow, but most amendments get washed out over time and we essentially end up with a pond in the backyard after each major rainstorm. Sump pumps run continually, but that water just adds to what is already pooling outside and running down the street. There is a storm drain next door, but it does not take care of the water in the backyards and the smaller sewer drains just cannot handle the volume. The solution is not as simple as putting this back on individual homeowners to “fix” their sewer drains. There is a much larger issue about the overall capacity for the pipes to handle adequate drainage of rainwater in low-lying areas even during our more common heavy thunderstorms.

  10. ng on October 19th, 2011 1:02 pm

    dlewis, regarding your question, I am saying that backflow can occur through any sewer connected drain. When the mains in the street start backing up, it will come through the lateral running through the front yard of the lowest house and back up through their lowest drain, which is going to be in the basement. This doesn’t matter when it was built. If your lowest drain is lower than your downhill neighbor’s (eg, you have a basement and they don’t), your drain is effectively the lowest point, and you’ll get it. It will travel up the street seeking level as water does. I do not believe backflow devices have ever been code, not now or in the past. You are not safe from this just because you have a newer house. The only thing post-1978 houses don’t do is add to the community problem (ie, their outside drains do not burden the system with rain water).

  11. ng on October 19th, 2011 1:08 pm

    Just wanted to add that older homes are probably at greater risk only to the extent that they are more likely to have a below-grade drain connected to the sewer (eg, stairwell floor drain). In a new home, there might be no such drain unless the basement is finished with a bathtub or shower. Also, I believe backflow devices require regular checking and maintenance. You would know if you had one. They are also very $$ to install – not something a builder would do unless they had to.

  12. TFC on October 19th, 2011 6:40 pm

    Just a thought….what about our water money? Since we can only use it for the water system…wonder if we could use any for storm water mgmt. improvements? I think I heard Mr. Hicks say that effective storm water management is a part of the big picture water quality metric.

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