Is Arlington Ready for the Next Flood?

In 2019, a sudden squall left scores of local homes and businesses under water, causing millions in damages. Are we prepared for another one?
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Parkland behind Lubber Run Amphitheater on July 8. Photo by Brandon Jones

For homeowners who live in fear of the next big storm, the clock is ticking and tensions are high.

“We would like to see a specific timeline about when steps will start,” Keating says. “This time we’d like the county to stick to the budgeted plan, which they did not last time.”

He says certain projects identified in the county’s 2014 master plan were not done because the funds were diverted elsewhere.

In the meantime, the county’s overtures to homeowners to take it upon themselves to make their homes more resilient have angered some who feel the government is passing the buck.

“When there’s a wall of water coming down the street…you can’t do anything about that as an individual homeowner,” Keating says. Like police, fire and education, stormwater management is the county’s responsibility.

“We all, as citizens, have expectations,” he says. “If the street has a pothole, you expect the county to fix it. If you have 3 feet of water in the streets and it can be fixed, there’s a reasonable expectation the county should do that.”

Some would like to see Arlington apply for help from the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund, a state program that would give flooded property owners access to low-interest loans for flood mitigation repairs. The fund hasn’t yet received any money from the state, but it could eventually help both homeowners and municipalities with upgrades.

Another idea on the table is for the county to buy out some of the properties with the worst flooding problems and use that land for pumping stations or water retention areas in the event of big surges caused by heavy rainfall.

“It makes sense,” says Sandy Newton, president of the Arlington County Civic Federation. “If you don’t want to have this recur, just don’t have the homes there.”

But the implementation of such ideas is tricky. As an example, county board member Dorsey points to a new state law allowing property-tax relief for flood victims, which didn’t offer much direction in figuring out who should be eligible. How does the county make sure the money is spent to harden homes against flood damage, and not just to restore them to their vulnerable state? Who qualifies?

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Photo by Liz Roll

Buying properties that repeatedly flood is an option, Dorsey says, but only if those homes are located in areas where using the land to collect water would help stop flooding on other properties, too. “This is not about relieving someone of property because they’ve had bad flooding events.”

Arlington County sustainability chief McBride worries that this particular idea doesn’t do enough to expand the capacity of the system: “To be honest, it doesn’t seem like a solution. It’s a Band-Aid.”

Newton and her constituents believe the county needs to pay more attention to flood risks when designing public facilities like schools and parks that could impact water flow. She says the county has begun doing a better job of building schools taller, with smaller footprints (thus minimizing the amount of impervious surface) but needs to avoid taking out old-growth trees that absorb water.

Arlington officials are considering strengthening county rules for private development to make sure new homes and buildings don’t compound the threat of flooding.

New homes and large additions already must adhere to certain stormwater management requirements, McBride says, and “we may increase those requirements,” such as mandates for larger water retention areas. The existing rules governing runoff have focused heavily on water quality, she explains, while the new rules would also consider the quantity of water leaving a property.

County officials like to remind residents that their homeowners’ insurance policy doesn’t include protection from most flooding. Flood protection insurance can be bought separately, says Winquist, the county’s watershed outreach program manager, but only 3 percent of Virginia homeowners have it.

Although it’s required for mortgages in high-risk flood zones, about 20 percent of flood claims come from outside official flood plains. And even flood insurance policies are limited in what they cover for basement flooding.

There are preventive measures homeowners can take. Permeable driveways allow water to flow through the hardscape and sink into the earth instead of being redirected down a slope into neighboring homes. Other solutions include dry wells, rain gardens, bio-retention filters, infiltration trenches and French drains—options that involve gravel or other substances underground that give water space to collect until it can drain, explains landscape designer Groff. But these hidden systems often come with sticker shock—especially for homeowners who have already stretched their budgets to buy into one of the nation’s most expensive real estate markets.

He says the average amount his clients spend on drainage is about $4,000 to $5,000, although for some it can be tens of thousands of dollars.

“Who wants to spend that much money on drainage?” Groff says. “It’s not like you’re getting a beautiful patio or deck.”

For new construction or major rehabs, homeowners must contend with landscaping rules designed to mitigate flooding. But that can mean being required to plant native species in a rain garden in the middle of the yard, right where they want their kids to play.

Groff says the county exerts less control over smaller renovations, but those can still lead to excess runoff. Something as simple as a misplaced downspout can send cascades of water into neighboring yards. He says many homeowners aren’t enthusiastic about spending thousands to solve a water problem for someone else.

Categories: Community