NOTICe Policy Committee
The NOTICe Policy Committee seeks to research, educate, and advocate around issues of concern to our community.
One of the most pressing issues for North Old Town is addressing pollution from the Oronoco Bay Outflow. It is currently a matter before the City Council and the Virginia General Assembly.
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The proposed storage tanks and tunnels will not eliminate all releases of untreated effluent during heavy rainstorms, but it should reduce the frequency of these events and the volume of discharged water.
The city is taking complementary measures to divert storm water runoff away from the combined sewer system altogether. One such project is being considered for Second Street between Watergate of Alexandria to the south and Canal Place to the north.
These initiatives, developed under a new-in-2016 Green Infrastructure Strategy, seek to reduce "stormwater runoff volumes, peak flows, and/or pollutant loads" at the source, utilizing "infiltration, evapotranspiration, and capture" in combination with steps to reduce overflows from the combined sewer system. The simplest of these measures would create new or expanded planted areas -- biogardens -- to increase the retention and absorption of rain water.
The Year Behind
In 2016, NOTICe's primary focus was on Alexandria's efforts to update the city's Small Area Plan for Old Town North.
All development in Alexandria is governed by a city-wide Master Plan that was drafted in 1974. For Old Town North, the master plan envisions – and has orchestrated for over 40 years – a deliberate transition away from mostly industrial land uses to a sustainable and inter-connected blend of commercial, residential and retail uses.
In 1992, the city adopted the first small area plan for Old Town North, which reinforces and elaborates upon the master plan’s emphasis on mixed-use development for the neighborhood. In the spring of 2015, the city began a two-year process to update Old Town North's small area plan.
City leaders want to continue the broad and purposeful move toward balanced development, while providing clear guidelines for new projects, redevelopment efforts and anticipated growth, including all work in coming years at the former NRG Potomac River Power Generating Station site.
To assist in updating the Old Town North small area plan, the city formed an advisory group comprised of city government employees, local business owners, and community representatives. Tom Soapes, NOTICe's President, serves as a member of the advisory group, and he has provided an update on the process on the Updates page of this website.
The city expects to complete the updated small area plan this summer.
The Year Ahead
Looking at the year ahead and beyond, NOTICe's attention is drawn to the city's efforts to address its longstanding storm water outflow problem. As you may be aware, the City of Alexandria operates two separate sewer systems – an older legacy system and a newer more efficient system.
The older system, dating back to the early 1800s, is a combined sewer that carries both waste water from homes and businesses as well as storm water runoff from streets, sidewalks, roofs and parking lots in a single pipe system to Alexandria Renew Enterprises’ water treatment facility, which is located between Eisenhower Avenue and the Capital Beltway to the immediate west of Four Mile Run (near the Whole Foods on Duke Street). The combined sewer predominantly serves the historic neighborhoods of Old Town.
The newer system is a dual pipe system in which one pipe carries waste water to the Alexandria Renew facility for treatment, and another pipe carries storm water runoff to local waterways with little or no treatment. This sewer serves recently redeveloped areas of Old Town (in the last 20 years or so) and areas of Alexandria that lie well outside of the historic district.
Many of the older developments in North Old Town are on the older combined sewer. The newer developments are on the newer dedicated sewer, as they are not allowed on the older system.
Alexandria Renew operates a state-of-the-art facility that uses filters and bacterial agents rather than chemicals to treat the waste water. Processing removes trash, grit, sediment, oils, grease, nitrogen, phosphorus and pathogens from the water. After treatment, the reclaimed clean water is released into Hunting Creek, which flows into the Potomac River and ultimately into the Chesapeake Bay.
When heavy rain falls on our city (about 60-70 times in an average year), the combined sewer is easily overwhelmed by the increased water volume (90 percent storm water and 10 percent raw sewage) flowing through the pipes to the water treatment facility. Because the water treatment facility is unable to process large amounts of storm water, much of it is diverted untreated into local waterways through four sewer outfalls.
One outfall sends effluent directly into Oronoco Bay near the foot of Pendleton Street (this is referred to as outfall 1), and the other three outfalls dump the overflow into Hunting Creek or its tributary, Hooff’s Run (referred to as outfalls 2-4).
Untreated nitrogen and phosphorus can produce algae blooms in local watersheds, which create “dead zones” that starve aquatic life of oxygen. Untreated pathogens can lead to infections, disease and undesirable mutations.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) strictly limits the amount of untreated water that can be released into state-controlled waterways and their tributaries, and requires local governments like Alexandria to develop a long-term plan for limiting and mitigating such releases.
VDEQ is requiring the city to reduce the amount of untreated effluent that it releases during heavy rain storms from outfalls 2-4 (into small waterways), but not outfall 1 (into a large river). However, the city currently supports addressing the situation at all 4 outfalls at the same time.
The city is proposing to construct a 3-million gallon storage tank and 10-foot diameter tunnels which would temporarily hold the excess effluent (that is today discharged into Hunting Creek and Hooff’s Run) until the treatment plant is able to process it in the ordinary course.
The obvious alternative, moving older buildings to the newer sewer system, is not practical as the cost would be prohibitive for both the city and individual homeowners, and such a project would entail tearing up the streets and sidewalks of Old Town to lay new pipes and connectors. The city believes that its plan will reduce the number of outflows to a few per year.
At the October 1, 2016 NOTICe meeting, Mark Levine, our state delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, told neighborhood residents that the estimated cost to build the planned storage tanks and the related diversion pipes for outfalls 2-4 is roughly $100 million. Double that cost if the city opts to deal with outfall 1 as well. In late November 2016, the City Council announced that the projected cost to address outfalls 2-4 would be $188 million, and the cost to address outfall 1 would be $150 million.
In the city's proposed FY 2018 budget, the expected cost to fix all four outfalls rose to $400 million. Putting this into context, in most years, the city's annual capital budget is $120-$150 million. To help pay for the sewer upgrades, Alexandria's City Manager proposes to increase the city's sanitary sewer fees by 30 percent starting in the summer of 2017.
Alexandria has established an Ad Hoc Combined Sewer System Plan Stakeholder Group to assist city staff in drafting an update to its Long Term Control Plan for the combined sewer system. Click here for details.
On February 25, 2017, the final day of its 2017 regular legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly required Alexandria to start construction to upgrade all four of its sewer outfalls by 2023, and complete those upgrades by 2025. The legislature previously threatened to cut-off all state funding to the city if it did not complete the repairs by 2020, and that threat remains.