Flood Followed Inaction on Fairfax Stream

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007

Like a coronary artery narrowed by plaque, Cameron Run absorbed Fairfax County's rich diet of development over the past 50 years, becoming so clogged with sediment that it was overwhelmed by storm water last June, causing severe flooding in the Huntington area.

The Potomac River tributary's condition also reflects years of lax regulation, deferred decisions and missed opportunities, according to officials dealing with the flood's aftermath.

Vital information was not shared by government agencies. Warnings about the neighborhood's vulnerability to flooding went unheeded. Some property owners in Huntington, where water damaged nearly 160 homes and resulted in losses estimated at $10 million, contributed to their own hardship by opting out of the federal flood insurance program.

"It's not one organization. It's a bunch of folks, a whole bunch of decisions that were made and not made," said Fairfax Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who represents Huntington, a community of moderately priced 1940s and 1950s duplexes on the south bank of Cameron Run.

A report on the June 25-26 flood, released this week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, pointed to nearly six feet of accumulated sediment as a principal cause of the high water that filled residents' basements and, in some cases, first floors with sewage-laden water. But the document is part of a larger story.

Cameron Run typifies the poor condition of many of the county's streams and tributaries. As commercial and residential builders have cleared foliage and other natural barriers, storm water has run unimpeded over paved roads and parking lots. It has eroded shorelines and carried dirt, pesticides and other chemicals into the streams.

Cameron Run's 42-square-mile watershed has absorbed a heavy dose of the county's development byproducts. Its three large tributary systems (Holmes Run, Tripps Run and Backlick Run) drain, among other areas, Tysons Corner, the town of Vienna and the city of Falls Church.

Although the county now spends tens of millions of dollars protecting watersheds and managing storm water, regulation was scant in the 1950s and 1960s, as residential construction boomed.

By 1974, according to a 2003 Virginia Tech study cited by the Corps of Engineers, 75 percent of the watershed was developed. Today, the figure is 95 percent. Builders are now required to follow strict sediment and erosion rules, but oversight in the 400-square-mile county has been spread among a relatively small number of inspectors.

"Without adequate site inspection, even the best programs may fail," the county acknowledges on its Web site.

As the Cameron Run watershed grew more urbanized, Huntington became more prone to flooding. It took on water twice in the 1970s during Tropical Storms Agnes and Eloise, and again in 2003 with Hurricane Isabel. Beginning in 1971, a series of studies recommended precisely the kinds of flood-control measures now under consideration: a flood wall, a levee or earthen berm, and dredging. But other big-ticket projects received budget priority, and the reports were shelved.

Hyland, a member of the Board of Supervisors since 1988, counts himself among those responsible. "The magnitude of the risk wasn't totally impressed upon us until that June event," he said at a community meeting last week.

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