Opinion: Commentary: Investing in Clean Waterways and Public Health

Opinion: Commentary: Investing in Clean Waterways and Public Health

Alexandria’s health and prosperity depend on clean waterways, and clean waterways depend on a well-functioning wastewater system. The Potomac River and its tributaries receive the cleaned water treated to the highest standards at our wastewater treatment plant. Our goal is to protect public and environmental health and keep our waterways clean.

Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew), a public authority serving about 300,000 residents and businesses in Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County, cleans our community’s used water daily. For 67 years, AlexRenew has invested almost $1 billion in upgrades to improve water quality, treatment capacity, and processing efficiency. In the past year, AlexRenew has been charged with the new treatment responsibility of mitigating the outdated combined sewer system that serves five percent of Alexandria, and addressing the extra flows entering our separated sewers in the west end. As a result, in the coming months, we will all see a rate increase in our sewer bills.

Rates are rising for several reasons. First, AlexRenew’s wastewater facilities require ongoing improvements to meet the increased federal requirements for treating wastewater. Second, AlexRenew is working with the City and Fairfax County to address the extra flows that enter the plant when it rains or area soil is saturated from leaking wastewater laterals and utility holes. Our Fairfax County partners will fund their share of the remediation work for the management of their extra flows at AlexRenew.

Lastly, AlexRenew is working with the City to tackle a legacy problem — the remediation of a combined sewer system in older parts of Alexandria, where millions of gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater discharge into the Potomac during wet weather events.

The solution to the combined sewer overflow and the extra flows that enter the separate sanitary sewers is a program called “RiverRenew,” which is being managed by AlexRenew in partnership the City. RiverRenew involves the construction of a tunnel system that will capture the flows from the combined sewers and upgrades at the wastewater plant to accommodate these flows.

RiverRenew is currently estimated to cost $370-$555 million. Its design and construction will be funded largely by rate increases for the Alexandria residents and businesses who are daily users of the system. Rates are expected to increase approximately 13 percent in the next year and 11 percent in the year after.

We have been fortunate to receive a grant of $25 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia in acknowledgement of the needed state and local partnership to complete this massive infrastructure program. We are thankful to Governor Northam for proposing the funding and to our local delegation for securing the critical support necessary to obtain this grant for RiverRenew in this year’s state budget, including Sen. Richard Saslaw, Sen. George Barker, Sen. Adam Ebbin, Del. Charniele Herring, and Del. Mark Levine. We will work to secure additional state funding in the future as the progress of this major infrastructure project continues.

Rate policy is determined by AlexRenew’s City Council-appointed Board of Directors, five community members who live in Alexandria and pay the same bills we all do. The Board calculates rate increases on a four-point philosophy: 1) fiscal responsibility to cover AlexRenew’s costs of service; 2) transparency and appropriate public notice and input; 3) compassion through payment flexibility options; and 4) diligent planning and projections to avoid drastic increases year after year.

The Potomac River and its tributaries are natural assets that promote Alexandria’s commercial viability, protect public health, encourage recreation, and enhance our quality of life. Investing in our wastewater system ensures the preservation of these vital natural resources. Our water sources and services are another way we are all connected and are systems we all share and invest in together.

We invite you to attend an Open House on Sunday, April 28, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., at the AlexRenew Environmental Center (1800 Limerick St.), to learn more about the need for your investment in the health of our waterways.