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Votes

Stream or Storm Drain?

Differing Definitions of Cameron Run have left county and VDOT at an impasse over dredging.

When the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would be five to seven years before any flood control measures for Huntington could be in place, Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland called for sediment dredging as an immediate way to lower flood levels by more than a foot. The Corps study showed that the additional five or six feet of silt that has accumulated in Cameron Run since 1965 caused floodwaters to rise between 1.2 and two additional feet – by far the biggest factor in the flooding.

But Corps and county officials resisted the call for immediate dredging, saying it would be better to await the results of a study that is currently being conducted.

But there may be another reason that that Fairfax County officials are waiting to respond to community calls for dredging: The county has a decades-long history of denying that maintenance dredging of Cameron Run near Huntington is its responsibility. Officials said that the stream’s proximity to 495 means VDOT should do it.

VDOT says according to the state Attorney General’s office, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the locality. The City of Alexandria, which has been dredging for three decades, agreed. And the Attorney General has no comment.

The dispute seems to rest on semantics: VDOT calls Cameron Run a navigable waterway. County officials call it, among other things, a drainage system.

WHEN VDOT began building the Capitol Beltway in 1960, Cameron Run was in the way of the huge road project. To make room for Interstate 95 and the Telegraph Road interchange, VDOT relocated parts of the channel, according to a VDOT report, and reduced the stream’s “meandering length” by 32 percent.

After Hurricane Agnes raised Cameron Run’s flow to a record level in 1972, both Fairfax County and Alexandria, began questioning who was responsible for clearing out debris and sediment that had collected in the portions of Cameron Run beside VDOT roads.

Rich Baier, Alexandria’s Director of Transportation and Environmental Services, said that although he could find no record of it, he knows the city, had “ a conscious discussion [with VDOT], very lively I’m sure.”

VDOT’s Nick Nickelson, project manager for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, says the city tried to shift responsibility to VDOT until they received a determination from the Attorney General’s office, which convinced Alexandria officials that dredging sediment and clearing debris from Cameron Run was the city’s responsibility. For the last three decades, Baier said, Alexandria has been doing routine dredging every seven to 10 years, at a cost of about $3 million each time. He said there is a dramatic difference between the dredged portions of the stream in Alexandria and the undredged portions in Fairfax County.

Fairfax County has never dredged the portions of Cameron Run that flow through the county and flooded 160 homes after heavy rains last summer. County officials insist that the dredging is VDOT’s responsibility. “The construction of the channel was part of the 495 project. The channel that flooded Huntington is in the 495 right of way,” said Randy Bartlett, the county’s director of stormwater management. He described Cameron Run as a drastically altered “natural waterway” that is part of a “natural drainage system.” He said there are numerous places throughout the county where VDOT maintains drainage systems and channels that were constructed for its roads.

But Nickelson says that Cameron Run is “a major waterway, a navigable channel,” not “a storm sewer.” However, he did acknowledge that VDOT has the responsibility to maintain waterways that impact roadways. When Huntington flooded, so did major portions of the Beltway, which VDOT had to shut down and clean off.

AFTER HIS CONSTITUENTS in Huntington asked him to clear up the matter, Del. David Englin (D-45) met with senior officials at the Department of Transportation several weeks age, he said in an email. “They were very clear that maintenance of waterways, including dredging, is a local government responsibility.”

“We all want a real solution that will prevent a flood in the future, but - regardless of whose responsibility it is - it's not clear that dredging is the answer,” Englin added. He said it would cost at least $20 million to dredge Cameron Run. “It's not clear that dredging would actually do much to help nearby residents.” He questioned the significance of a one-foot drop in flood levels, and cited the expense of continued dredging as another prohibitive factor.

Baier said Alexandria has long accepted that Cameron Run requires dredging, and that the lack of dredging downstream in Fairfax County affects the city. “We’re very concerned that there be some dredging.”

County spokesman Merni Fitzgerald said the “real question” on the issue is who will pay for the dredging. She said the Corps study might reveal that dredging will ultimately be the responsibility of the federal government. “At this point it’s not a matter of looking back, it’s a matter of looking forward.”

Hyland agreed that state, federal and county funds should pay for the flood control projects. “The finger-pointing just doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Alexandria and Fairfax County officials plan to meet this spring to discuss the results of various studies and to plan for future flood control measures.