City Council Rushes to Fix Sewer Overflow Problems

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Alexandria City household sewer bills going UP as Improvements to 19th-century sewer system are made

sewer-overflowAt its regular meeting on November 9, City Council voted unanimously to accelerate a series of projects to substantially reduce sewer overflows into local waterways.  This decision updates a plan adopted by City Council in May 2016, by moving up the feasibility study for the Oronoco Bay outfall by 14 years and adding additional funding for green infrastructure and sewer separation in that area.  The City’s continued investment in sewers promotes clean waterways, which is central to community efforts towards the Eco-City Alexandria plan for environmental sustainability.

“Alexandria is fully committed being a strong environmental steward and to significantly reducing combined sewer overflows from all four City outfalls, including Oronoco Bay,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg.  “In addition to the May 14, 2016, vote by which Council committed to a plan for three outfalls and to seek acceleration for the fourth outfall at Oronoco Bay, tonight’s action with regard to Oronoco Bay speeds up this effort considerably by 14 years versus the previous schedule. Given the magnitude of the construction that will be necessary, the City’s timeline is a reasonable and responsible approach to addressing this important issue. It will take years to complete these projects, and we are committed to taking action and moving forward.”

Alexandria has one of the earliest combined sewer systems in the country, dating back to the early 1800s. Over 800 cities nationwide have a similar system, including outfalls in neighboring jurisdictions that overflow into the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.  While 95 percent of Alexandria is served by separate sanitary sewers that always flow to a wastewater treatment plant, the remaining five percent of the city is served by combined sewers, which normally flow to a wastewater treatment plant but overflow only during wet weather via outfalls into Hunting Creek, Hoofs Run, and Oronoco Bay.

Combined sewer systems in Virginia are regulated by the EPA and VDEQ.    The City of Alexandria is in compliance with all federal and state laws, regulations, and permit requirements, including the Clean Water Act.   The plan adopted in May will eliminate overflows from three of the City’s four outfalls except during the heaviest rain events.  The complex engineering work will include installation of a large storage tank, a sizeable underground storage tunnel, green infrastructure, and sewer separation, at a cost of up to $188 million.  Federal and state mandates require the City to address these three outfalls at Hunting Creek and Hoofs Run, and there is currently no similar mandate for the fourth outfall at Oronoco Bay.  Nevertheless, the City is proceeding with and accelerating feasibility and assessment studies to determine and plan infrastructure projects to provide similar reductions in overflows at Oronoco Bay. The cost to fully address this fourth outfall could be up to an additional $130 million.

In the short-term, the City plans to install green infrastructure in areas that flow to the Oronoco Bay outfall and, consistent with City policy, will require new private developments in the area to install separate sewer connections that will reduce flow to the outfall over time.  The plan calls for phased implementation of large-scale capital projects. Construction of these projects will impact neighborhood homes and businesses, and the City has limited capacity to take on these projects simultaneously.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) recognize that these types of mega-projects have long lead and planning times and can be very disruptive to communities and that using a long-term, phased approach is the generally accepted practice.

City sewer maintenance is currently funded in large part through a City sanitary sewer maintenance fee, a charge assessed on Alexandria Renew Enterprises customers’ monthly sewer bills.  The average household sewer bill is expected to increase from $540 to $720 per year to $660 to $900 per year to pay for the work at the three outfalls into Hunting Creek and Hoofs Run.  Depending on the work ultimately undertaken to address the remaining outfall at Oronoco Bay, monthly sewer bills could further increase to a total of 50 percent over today’s amounts.  The City has also met with Alexandria’s state legislative delegation and plans to seek state funding to assist with sewer projects.