By Drew Costley
Sewage spewing out of a toilet and basements flooding with inches of water were some of the complaints City of Falls Church residents brought to the attention of the City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) during an open forum Thursday at American Legion Post 130, a meeting held as an opportunity for residents to discuss problems they’ve been having with the sanitary sewer system.
Michael Collins, P.E., the City’s director of public works, said that the DPW was particularly interested in hearing from residents of the Hillwood and Dorchester neighborhoods after receiving multiple calls from residents on those streets reporting sewage backups and flooding in their homes during heavy rains in late April and mid May.
Collins said that those rain storms were intense storms – on April 29 and 30 the City received nearly four inches of rain and on May 15 and 16 received over two and a half inches – but not of the magnitude that could cause a complete or near complete failure of the sewer system. So the DPW was surprised to hear several residents calling in to report sewage backups and flooding, Collins said. But several residents said they’ve been dealing with sewage and flooding problems for nearly a decade.
Hillwood Avenue resident Chanda Wilson said her house has experienced basement flooding seven times in the last 11 years, twice during heavy rains in April and May. She said her basement flooded just over an inch during the first storm and six inches during the second. According to Wilson, the water in her basement was 30 inches high after a storm in 2011, which also caused her toilet to overflow with waste water and sewage.
“Two weeks in row,” Wilson said. “I finished mopping and the next week it happens again. … When it does come out of the toilet the bubbling starts and then it just kind of spews up like a geyser. And it’s not always just water that’s coming up, so that’s kind of been an issue.”
Wilson, who is seven months pregnant, said that these sewage backups pose a potential health risk to her and her unborn child. She said that nothing came out of the toilet during the April and May storms.
Hillwood resident Tom Clinton, the City’s commissioner of the revenue, said he initially thought the water flooding his basement was stormwater, but it made the problem “worse” when he found out it was water from the sanitary sewer system. He said he got eight inches of water in his basement earlier this year during one of the big storms, though he couldn’t recall which one caused the flooding. As result of the regular flooding, Clinton’s washer was damaged beyond repair and needed to be replaced.
“Now we keep everything of value off the ground. But I had to take the entire day off work and clean it all up. I’m not going to keep filing insurance claims; they’re going to drop me or my rates are going to go up,” Clinton said. “It’s mostly labor; there’s nothing valuable down there, but in this case I lost my washer.”
According to Collins, the sanitary sewer system is a closed system, designed to channel only waste water from homes and business in the City to treatment plants in Arlington County and Old Town Alexandria. This system is different from the combined sewer system some municipalities use, which channels waste, storm and ground water using the same drainage system. In the Falls Church system, infiltration from storm and ground water can cause overflows and backups in the drainage pipes, which lead to sewage backups and flooding in resident’s homes.
Falls Church’s closed sanitary sewer system, Collins said, could get infiltrated by ground and storm water, also known as illicit water, in several ways, but there are two main avenues for the infiltration. The first is from cracks and flaws in the drainage pipes and manhole covers around the City. The second is from homes built prior to 1968 that have foundation drains that carry storm and ground water directly into the sanitary sewer system.
Collins said that in the worst cases the infiltration of illicit water into the sanitary sewer system can amplify the flow of water into the system by 10 to 12 times the amount of water the system is designed to carry. Typically the infiltration of illicit water into sanitary sewer systems is two to four times the amount of water the system is designed to carry, Collins said.
Harry Shovlin, a member of the American Legion Post 130 and a Hillwood resident, said toward the end of the meeting that problems with the sanitary sewer system are related to storm- and ground-water management. He said that slowing down the rate at which storm water runs off from private property could “greatly reduce” the sanitary sewer problem.
“The sanitary sewer system problem backups involve infiltration of storm water into the sanitary sewer line,” Shovlin said. “So until we are able to seal the sanitary sewer system, separate it 100 percent from storm water, we are going to continue having the backup issues in the sanitary sewer line. … We didn’t really address storm water tonight, but we really need to because they are linked.”
Collins said the DPW has worked with residents on a case-by-case basis and suggested stop-gap measures such as a backflow prevention valve to help curb sewage backup and flooding issues. And he said the City has employed the “more obvious solutions” to reducing infiltration of illicit water into the sanitary sewer system, like finding and sealing cracks in the sewer lines, but haven’t been able to solve the problem.
This was one of the reasons the DPW called the meeting – so that they can begin to gauge the magnitude of the problem, start a dialogue about the sanitary sewer issues and start generating solutions.
“We wanted to kind of start this dialogue, get a sense what the degree of the problem is and now we’re going to take that back and start trying to figure what we’re going to do from here,” Collins said.
Collins said it may take up to a year to study the City’s sanitary sewer issues and solutions to the problem may begin to get funded during this period. He said he would have a meeting by the end of August to tell residents the DPW’s next steps to addressing sewer system’s problems.
“I can’t tell you what we’re going to do from here, I can tell you that we’re not going to have a solution in six months in terms of [having] it all solved in six months, but we’re going to be working towards one and trying to come with a plan with what we think might solve these problems,” Collins said. “Because it’s not OK. This isn’t an OK situation.”