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City, County Differ on Dredging Cameron Run

Alexandria has already spent millions on years of dredging, Fairfax still isn’t sure.

In its study on the causes of the Huntington flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers placed most of the blame on one factor: siltation that has raised Cameron Run’s streambed up to six feet and created an extra two feet of floodwater. Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland pressed for dredging that would clear the silt. But county staff said more study needs to be done before choosing a course of action: a definitive answer may not be available until the end of the year, and it may be five to seven years before a solution is actually in place. Hyland said this was unacceptable.

A 1982 study commissioned by the county identified the risk that was exposed on June 25, when 160 houses in Huntington flooded during heavy rains. Hyland noted the irony of pushing to get a solution in place “yesterday” when county leaders had 25 years to act on the problem and did nothing.

No matter how hard Hyland pushes, it will be impossible for Fairfax County to respond to the flood in this time frame. But it’s not impossible for Alexandria. According to Alexandria’s Director of Transportation and Environmental Services Rich Baier, the city has been spending between two and three million dollars every three years to do maintenance dredging on the portions of Cameron Run within its borders. It dredged Cameron Run in 2002 and 2003, and did some emergency dredging after the June storm. Several office buildings in the Eisenhower Valley were flooded during that storm, causing millions of dollars in damage, Mayor Bill Euille said at the Jan. 11 meeting.

Baier said that from the city’s perspective, dredging is inevitable. “The city feels very strongly that any, any, any – I can’t say that strongly enough – that any project that would have to be done in Cameron run or Hunting Creek, even if it is a berm or floodwall, would have to include dredging.”

BAIER SAID the city’s well-dredged channel beside Eisenhower valley stood in stark contrast to the “trickling” flow where Cameron Run is clogged with “enormous loads of sentiment” outside the city limits, near Huntington.

In an interview, Randy Bartlett, the county’s director of stormwater management, repeated what he told Hyland at the Jan. 11 meeting. It’s too soon to tell whether dredging is the most effective answer. Asked to explain why the county has allowed sediment to build at Cameron Run while Alexandria has spent millions to prevent this from happening, he said much of the land where sediment has collected is located between VDOT’s Telegraph Road, Route 1 and 495 bridges, making that portion of the stream VDOT’s responsibility. “Typically VDOT has provided maintenance of storm sewer systems that are in [its] right of ways.”

Bartlett added that Fairfax County’s biggest stormwater problem involves erosion, rather than sedimentation, so that is where its efforts have been focused. He also pointed out that Huntington, unlike Alexandria, can also be flooded by tidal currents, which are not affected by dredging.

“IT ONLY MAKES SENSE that the county and the city should be coordinating dredging efforts. But apparently that’s not going to be happening,” said Mack Rhoades, the president of the Huntington Community Association. He described the residents of his community as pleased with the thoroughness of the Corps' report but deeply disappointed at the prospect of waiting up to seven years for relief.

“It’s just odd to me that the county continues to drag its feet on the dredging,” Rhoades said, “and I think that’s what’s pissing people off. In contrast to their [effective] response after the flood, now they seem to be less ambitious.”

Even as he admitted his own impatience for dredging to begin, Hyland defended the county and Corps' approach, stressing the “millions and millions and millions of dollars” any solution will cost. “Staff is a little bit reluctant to jump on a quick fix before they get to the ultimate fix,” he said. “And then they get impatient me and others saying the heck with that stuff. We don’t want to wait.”

Bartlett said the County and the Corps will hold public workshops in March to outline progress on the studies of possible mitigation measures (flood-proofing individual homes, constructing a berm or floodwall, dredging and buy-outs) and to seek input from the people directly involved. He said there will be “more in-depth discussion of what each alternative really means … so that we’re all moving together with the same understanding.”

Bartlett said the county will also be looking long-term, using the recommendations in the recently-completed Huntington watershed study to craft a plan to prevent the erosion and sedimentation that clogged the stream. It took 40 years of development for these changes to dramatically affect Huntington, and Bartlett warned that restoring the health of the watershed will be a long process. “As you restore the watersheds, you’ve got to overcome all those gradual little things and you don’t build one big thing. But if you’re going to protect the community, it’s going to take one big thing. But I don’t know what that big thing is.”

AT THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS meeting this week, Hyland introduced a measure directing county staff to follow-up on a pledge he and board Chairman Gerry Connolly made at the Jan. 11 meeting: to create a county program to help Huntington residents pay for flood insurance, which Rhodes estimated could cost residents in the flood zone $1,500-$2,000 a year. Hyland’s directive is based on a section of state code that allows for the creation of “rehabilitation areas” where the county can help residents prevent the “deterioration” of their homes. Hyland said county staff should report back to board on Feb. 26 with a proposal for creating the program.