Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

No homeowner is an island.

I’ve been pondering this because our interdependent suburban landscape has been producing flooding that spills from one property to another.

The persistent puddles in yards and gutters on my block have drawn attention from county hydro-engineers. We await results of their welcome investigation.

The first clue is undeniable: Rainfall in 2018 gave our area the wettest year on record. That has raised the underground water table.

And some of us occupy more-vulnerable homes near streambeds. And some have installed basement sump pumps that fail.

There’s another possible culprit that gets mentioned — but only, it seems, in passing. The well-documented trend toward tear-downs and construction of larger homes. Many structures come with increased lot coverage, tree removal and ever-deeper basements, county staff note.

Neither the National Association of Home Builders nor the individual homebuilders I spoke to were eager to discuss it.

But Jessica Baxter, spokeswoman for the county’s Environmental Services division, rounded up answers from a variety of staff specialists.

Exact numbers on complaints to the country about drainage problems are not available, they said. “During 2018, the region received more than 20 inches over our average annual rainfall — with many individual storms producing intense bursts of rain. The combination of saturated soils, high water tables, and intense rainfall triggered many complaints about water in garages, basements and yards, as well as problems on sidewalks and roads. Complaints ranged from multiple feet of water in basements because the capacity of the storm drain system was exceeded, property-to-property runoff, runoff from active construction sites, and extremely wet yards and other landscaped areas.”

Whether the heavy rainfall is attributable to climate change is an open question, staff said — experts are watching long-term trends.

Factors that most likely contribute to new flooding, the staff note, include:

• Steady, incremental, and cumulative increase in impervious surfaces from redevelopment activity, particularly single-family homes;

• Loss of trees and increased soil compaction that often accompany residential redevelopment;

• Areas with steep topography (particularly north Arlington);

• Lack of “tertiary” storm drainage infrastructure in residential areas — infrastructure typically built in subdivisions today (e.g., swales and smaller pipe networks) to convey drainage from individual properties to the main storm drain system; and

• Capacity limitations in the main storm drain system.

“As new homes are built, basements do tend to be deeper, and sump pumps are required,” the staff said. Drainage problems can be worsened by “more frequent and widespread sump-pump discharges flowing over the land surface.”

Homebuilders are required by the Stormwater Management Ordinance to honor stormwater management practices. “But the effectiveness can be limited by the constraints” already mentioned, the staff said. Enforcement tools include stop-work orders, fines for pollution discharges and authority to withhold a certificate of occupancy.

Homeowners, for their part, can consult the county’s flood insurance rate maps to gauge their risk and decide whether to invest in flood insurance.
They can also avail themselves of the Stormwaterwise Landscapes program for technical assistance.

The county’s ongoing capital budget process does upgrades to the existing storm system. During an October 2018 work session, the county board directed staff to look more closely at options under the ordinance “to more comprehensively mitigate the flooding and drainage impacts from development activity on downhill properties,” officials told me. Staff will provide recommendations later this year.


Arlington said goodbye to Wayne Ballard, whose 80-year life included the rare thrill of being a historic football hero.

Ballard, who died Feb. 10, was the Washington-Lee High School quarterback in the famous 1956 Old Oaken Bucket game against Alexandria’s George Washington. He kicked the last-second field goal that bounced over the crossbar and gave the Generals a 3-0 victory.

In 2014, I got to interview Ballard about his state-championship-winning feat performed before a Thanksgiving Day crowd of thousands. Just part of a larger life.

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