Virginia Explained: Why stormwater poses an increasing challenge for Virginia

By: - January 22, 2020 12:01 am

Inspection of an underground stormwater detention and treatment structure in Phoebus, Va., designed by a landscape architect. (Mike Fox/WPL)

On July 8, as rush hour clogged the roads of Alexandria, a slow-moving southbound storm caused a deluge of rain to fall over the city.

And fall. And fall. And fall.

All throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, precipitation and flood records were shattered.

By the end of a single hour, 3.44 inches of rain had been recorded at Reagan National Airport just north of Alexandria. The downpour caused the Potomac and creeks all over the region to breach their banks, sending floodwaters into streets and yards and parking lots. At the U.S. Geological Survey flood gauge at Cameron Run, a stream running along the city’s southern border, water levels reached almost 16 feet — well over the flood stage set by the agency.

Flood gauge data from the July 8 flash flood collected at Cameron Run, Alexandria. (U.S. Geological Survey)

The record-breaking rain was an aberration, the kind of weather event no municipal drainage system is designed to handle. As Jesse Maines, chief of Alexandria’s stormwater management division and a member of the board of the Virginia Municipal Stormwater Association, noted, “You don’t build the church for Easter Sunday.”

But it also revealed exactly why Virginia lawmakers have increasingly become concerned with stormwater and the challenges it poses on both a state and local level.

It’s not the most glamorous or flashy of the political issues the General Assembly will be taking up this session. But to see how it impacts every resident of Virginia, just look out the window the next time it rains.

First things first: What is stormwater?

Stormwater is runoff from a storm — usually rain, but also melting snow or ice — that isn’t absorbed by the ground and instead flows over its surface until it ends up in a body of water. If you’ve ever seen torrents running through gutters during a cloudburst, that’s stormwater. Streets and houses flooded by precipitation are too.

While stormwater affects all communities, urban and rural, it most profoundly impacts cities. Between roads and small residential lots with little green space, urban areas have large amounts of impermeable surfaces, or surfaces that can’t absorb water. And because historically, urban areas weren’t designed for stormwater management, the older and denser the city, the more impermeable surface it tends to have.

Alexandria is a good example. According to Maines, about 48 percent of the city’s land area is impervious surface; in its oldest part, historic Old Town, about 85 percent is.

OK, but why does the government care about it?

Two reasons: flooding and pollution. 

Flooded roads endanger human life and hamper economic functioning. Floods also damage property and can harm infrastructure like the electric grid. 

But the stormwater problem isn’t just about water quantity; it’s also about quality. As runoff flows over the ground’s surface toward its final destination, it collects everything in its path, including pesticides; fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus, the main pollutants that cause algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay; motor oil and other vehicle discharges; garbage; and chemicals.

In some older cities, it can also carry human waste. Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg still have what are known as combined sewer overflow systems, in which the same infrastructure handles both sewage and stormwater. 

When conditions are normal, everything that flows into this system ends up at a wastewater plant where it’s treated before being discharged. But when too much rain overwhelms the system, it’s designed to overflow into a nearby body of water — sending not only stormwater, but all of the sewage mixed with it. That, of course, poses risks to both human health and the environment.

The latter situation isn’t all that rare. In Alexandria, said city Communications Director Craig Fifer, “It takes relatively little rainfall to create the overflows now.” In Richmond in 2018, the system overflowed 550 times.

Flooding and pollution have always been a problem. Why all the fuss now?

Two reasons: the Chesapeake Bay and climate change.

First, the Bay. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration rolled out the Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, a cumbersome term for limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that can be discharged into a body of water in the watershed. (If you’ve ever heard the phrase “pollution diet” used in relation to the bay, that’s what people are talking about.)

Virginia has managed stormwater to some degree for decades. But because the TMDL put specific, data-driven limits on pollution, it acted as what Maines, Alexandria’s stormwater management division chief, called a “trigger” for the development of the current system.

Here’s how it happened: To meet these limits, states developed what are known as Watershed Implementation Plans, or WIPs. (The Chesapeake Bay may inspire poetry, but it’s also birthed a slew of acronyms.) These plans specified exactly how much of the pollution load could come from stormwater, among other sources.

In July 2014, after several years of intense negotiation at the General Assembly, Virginia laws went into effect requiring all cities, counties and towns to have a stormwater management program in place. Subsequent phases of the state’s WIP — Virginia is rolling out Phase III now — imposed new requirements on stormwater systems.

What does climate change have to do with stormwater?

Scientists expect more precipitation in the U.S. in coming years, as well as more intense storms. Increased rain runoff, the EPA warns, “can exacerbate existing, or introduce new, pollution problems.”

In short, the July 8 storm in the Washington, D.C. region may be a glimpse of more to come. And if it is, said Maines, that “would move the goalposts” of how local governments manage their stormwater.

In Virginia, the additional complication is sea level rise, due to both climate change and land subsidence. The Hampton Roads region is experiencing the fastest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast and the second fastest nationally, after the Gulf Coast. Rising waters exacerbate stormwater problems: not only does flooding become more extreme, but the higher water table can mean permeable surfaces become waterlogged and unable to absorb stormwater as quickly.

Governments in the region have signaled how serious they are about the stormwater problem: earlier this month, the Virginian-Pilot reported that Virginia Beach leaders were planning to put a $430 million bond referendum on the November ballot to pay for stormwater projects. If approved, it would be the city’s largest bond referendum ever.

Concern isn’t limited to Hampton Roads, however. Democratic Del. Kaye Kory of Fairfax also highlighted the need for the state to continue addressing stormwater. 

“I have seen the erosion and the growing damage from stormwater,” she said, “and it’s only going to continue to worsen.”

So what has Virginia done so far?

Like anything else, stormwater management relies heavily on one thing: money. And on that, said Maines, “the state kind of put the money where their mouth was, if you will.”

Beginning in 2014, Virginia began operating the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, a pot of money handed out every year to cover 50 percent of the costs of local stormwater projects. (Localities are also authorized to run stormwater utilities to raise funds for such work.) 

Alexandria alone has received several million for efforts such as pond retrofits. Lake Cook is one, although not everyone is happy about its conversion to a retention pond — “We have some angry beavers out there,” said Maines. 

Overall, since SLAF’s creation, between $8.5 and $25 million in funding has been authorized every year. But that’s only a fraction of what’s needed. In November 2019, the Secretariat of Natural Resources estimated that SLAF will need $291 million in funding between fiscal years 2020 and 2024. Because the program is designed as a matching fund, local governments will be expected to contribute the same amount. 

SLAF funding estimates
Estimated funding needed for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund over the next five years. (Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources)

What’s next?

Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget would dramatically swell SLAF’s coffers, committing $182 million to the fund over the next two years. That’s not counting $65 million for fixes to Alexandria’s troubled combined sewer overflow system, which the General Assembly has ordered must be remediated by 2025. 

Beyond funding, lawmakers are looking closely at the issue. One proposal being pushed by Kory would carry out a comprehensive study of the current management system, which she said is often ineffective and fragmented even as, in the legislation’s words, it “has come to impose increasingly complicated and costly obligations” on local governments and individuals. 

“It’s a mishmash of interwoven legislation and regulation, with some federal on top,” she said. Her resolution is an “attempt at evaluating what mechanisms we have now in place that we may or may not be enforcing and trying to proceed to the next step.”

Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, is also looking toward broader reform: A bill he put forward would initiate a study of how the state could “integrate and consolidate” its stormwater management, erosion and sediment control, and Chesapeake Bay laws.

Not everyone is seeking to rewrite the stormwater management book. Others just want to tweak it, whether by building in provisions to encourage tree preservation as a way of managing runoff, grandfathering certain land disturbance activities, expanding stormwater credits available to local governments or strengthening Virginia’s review of proprietary manufactured devices that are marketed as a way to comply with stormwater regulations. 

“Virginia’s process,” said Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, the sponsor of the proprietary device bill, “is not as robust as we want.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.