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Culvert Clash

A hydrological project pits the residents of an Arlington neighborhood against each other.

George LaPlante, who lives in a home on Little Pimmit Run in North Arlington, is terrified.

The roots of a tree in his neighbor’s yard, whittled away by years of fiercely flowing storm waters, are exposed. If the tree were to fall, LaPlante fears that it would land directly on his son’s bedroom.

Several hundred yards up Little Pimmit Run, Jeanette Murry is also terrified.

She lives right next to a culvert that goes over the creek and acts like a dam during times of heavy rain. When nine inches of rain fell in 24 hours during last summer’s floods, the creek broke its banks and the water rose three feet high on her back door.

One would think that these two residents of the Rock Spring Neighborhood would be united in their efforts to improve the area’s storm water system and save their respective homes from more damage.

Instead, the county government’s plan to solve the water problem has turned them into adversaries.

In a rare non-unanimous vote, the County Board recently approved a plan to widen two culverts over Little Pimmit Run in the hopes that this will prevent water from becoming dangerously backed up during heavy rains.

Residents who live upstream from the culverts, such as Murry, cheered the Board’s approval of a project that may finally provide them some relief from ever more frequent and severe floods.

Residents who live downstream from the culverts, such as LaPlante, were horrified that a bad situation may now get worse due to increased water flow from the opened culverts.

"I don’t think we can turn it into a win-win [situation]," County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D) said. "But hopefully we can do some mitigation."

THE PROJECT, as it is now conceived, is divided into two phases.

The first phase, which was approved by the Board at its April 24 meeting, calls for the reconstruction of the culvert on Old Dominion Road between George Mason Drive and Dickerson Street.

The second phase has yet to be approved by the Board. It would entail the reconstruction of the Williamsburg Boulevard culvert, located between George Mason Drive and Columbus Street.

Bill Roper, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Services, predicted that Phase Two will be approved by the Board because "Until Phase Two is done there will still be some problems."

Roper acknowledged that the project could negatively affect the area downstream from the culvert.

But he said that, based on storm modeling scenarios, it will only cause the water to rise downstream by approximately four inches. He also said that it will cause the average velocity of the water to increase by only five percent downstream.

The water’s velocity is what really concerns LaPlante. He said that the water is far too fast as it is, without hundreds of thousands of gallons gushing through a newly-enlarged culvert.

"It moves so quickly that if you were to fall into that water, I don’t care who you are or how strong you are, you would have no chance of survival," LaPlante said. "Somebody is going to get hurt."

IN RESPONSE TO an uproar from the downstream community, Roper said that the Department of Environmental Services has started to discuss a Phase Three for the project. It will examine ways to minimize the effects of the culvert reconstructions on the downstream area.

But these plans are still in their embryonic stages. Because of the Board’s approval, construction on Phase One could begin in less than a month.

The County Board struggled with the issue because, while they attempted to broker a compromise between the upstream and downstream communities, a time issue compelled several Board members to forge ahead.

Because the area of Old Dominion Road over the culvert will need to be completely shut down during construction, the Virginia Department of Transportation allowed the county to go ahead with the project only during summer months when schools are out and the roads would be less used.

Therefore, if the Board didn’t approve Phase One now, it would have been delayed until the summer of 2008.

"My first thought was to do nothing and take no action if there was doubt," Ferguson said. "However it is clear that upstream residents could face serious flooding if the Board didn’t act… Although I was hesitant to move forward, the safety concerns and the whole timing of having to act convinced me."

Ferguson also added that the vote "wasn’t one I enjoyed."

Board Member Chris Zimmerman (D) voted against Phase One because he felt there were too many question marks regarding the project.

"I felt there were a number of questions that were not satisfactorily answered," he said. "It is unclear whether we know what the impact is going to be."

Ultimately, the Board did approve the project on a 4-1 vote. Construction on the Old Dominion culvert should be completed by the end of August with Phase Two coming next summer.

While the Little Pimmit Run issue has made things tense in the Rock Spring Neighborhood, Murry hopes that a solution can be reached that will remedy the predicament of the entire area.

"I think that we share similar concerns with the people downstream," she said. "The work [the county is] doing will solve one problem. But we all benefit by solving the bigger problem."