Opinion: Commentary: Inland Flooding

Opinion: Commentary: Inland Flooding

Facing storm intensities far beyond what our infrastructure was designed to handle

With one week remaining in the 2021 legislative session, Senators and Delegates are putting the finishing touches on legislation, and preparing to head home to the districts they represent in Richmond and throughout the year.

One of the great features of the 30th Senate District, which I have been privileged to represent since 2011, is its sweeping access to the Potomac River, and the many tributaries that feed into it. Despite sitting miles from the Bay and Ocean, water is all around us, bringing with it cool, fresh air; rich, diverse marshland; and the ability to walk from the office to multitudes of freshwater activities in moments. With these benefits, as those who live in our area know all too well, also come a number of challenges. The most obvious of which is the damage and danger of inland flooding.

As our climate is altered by a multitude of manmade factors, we face the reality of storm intensities beyond what our infrastructure was ever designed to handle. In just the last year, the city of Alexandria has faced three “ten-year” storms (storms that have a one-in-ten chance of happening in a given year that drops 2.28 inches of rain over an hour or 4.81 inches in a day). The intensity of this rainfall has overburdened our stormwater management systems, creating serious backups and flash flooding in underprepared areas of Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax.

Areas such as Del Ray and Four Mile Run, among many, have faced serious flooding. Many individuals have felt the brunt of the inadequacy of our existing stormwater infrastructure to handle the quantity of water it is facing on a much more regular basis. Basements and properties have been severely damaged, people have been trapped in cars during flash floods, and the problem is only getting worse. We face both a short and long-term problem: protecting the homes and properties of those who live in the affected areas, and also fixing an overrun and aging infrastructure system to mitigate flooding issues.

In Alexandria, residents are looking to the city to do everything possible to deal with the recurring flooding that’s impacting our community. The city is currently working on a Flood Mitigation Action Plan which includes more than $170 million in infrastructure investments and capacity projects throughout the community which will take ten years to complete.

While that crucial long-term investment is underway, we must find ways to support those people who are being affected now. I was glad that local officials in Alexandria worked with me on legislation to give them flexibility to address the immediate needs of constituents. Often, our local officials are placed in a jam in Virginia -- they have the ideas, money, and staff to pull off incredible projects, but their hands are sometimes tied by the “Dillon Rule.” Unlike “home rule” states, Virginia localities draw their power from the state legislature, and any new power they wish to adopt must be approved by the legislature.

In this case, localities have created a flexible grant fund, drawn from their own coffers, to address stormwater management, but they were limited in how they use those funds to address flooding. That is why I introduced SB1309, which grants increased power to preserve at-risk properties through floodproofing, grading, and other flood protection products. These cost-effective, and environmentally-friendly projects should grant some much-needed reprieve to our water-adjacent neighborhoods, protecting the most vulnerable neighborhoods while Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax governments work diligently to overhaul their stormwater management systems.

I was glad to unanimously pass this legislation and send it to the Governor’s desk last week. I look forward to this becoming law and will continue working to address the underlying issues resulting in environmental and infrastructure threats in our community.