Whenever it rains hard in Alexandria, VA, millions of gallons of sewage-fouled stormwater pour untreated from the city’s aged, overwhelmed sewer system into the Potomac River and its tributaries.

It’s a problem caused by centuries-old infrastructure that the city has been studying and slowly working on for decades. Under a plan endorsed by Virginia’s environmental regulators, it may take the city another 20 years or more to fix it and stop routinely polluting the Chesapeake Bay tributary.

That’s too late for environmental activists and some city residents, who say bacterial contamination from the sewage overflows — which totaled 130 million gallons last year — pose health risks for adults and children who kayak, row and otherwise recreate on the river.

Storm drains in a 544-acre area funnel rainfall from streets and parking lots into sanitary sewer lines. When the mix of runoff and raw sewage backs up in the pipes, it overflows by design from four outfalls into Potomac tributaries.

The city began studying the problem as far back as the 1980s, and under a long-term control plan adopted in 1999, it began to whittle away at it, somewhat reducing the extent of the combined sewer system. Just this year, though, the city agreed to begin planning to build storage and treatment facilities to curtail overflows from three of four outfalls where they occur. But with the state’s blessing, the city planned to leave the largest outfall — which spews nearly 70 million gallons of polluted stormwater annually into the river’s Oronoco Bay — untouched for the next 20 years.

A riverkeeper network mounted a protest this fall to the long timetable, and the city has since agreed to begin studying a fix for the fourth outfall in 2018, 14 years earlier than originally planned. But design and construction of the remedy still would not begin for another decade after that — in 2028.

“The bottom line is it’s not good enough, not even close,” Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks wrote in an email after the city sped up its timeline for the fourth outfall. “While we appreciate further consideration on this issue, this ‘acceleration plan’ still allows sewage discharges for a minimum of 15 years, likely longer.”

The decision also left environmental groups questioning why state and federal regulators seemed to be giving Alexandria so much time when, just across the river, the District of Columbia has already begun building a $2.6 billion fix for its much larger sewage overflow. The work there to build 13 miles of underground storage tunnels should be complete by 2022.

Alexandria officials said they are working on their overflows as quickly as feasible, and that regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality understand the long-term nature of these projects.

“Since it is not practical to undertake construction work at all four outfalls simultaneously, we have implemented a phased approach that is recognized by the EPA and DEQ as responsible and reasonable,” wrote Andrea Blackford, a spokeswoman for the City of Alexandria, in a statement.

The city is focusing on fixing three of the four outfalls that empty into Hunting Creek, including one into a tributary of the creek called Hooffs Run. City officials say those are a priority, because state regulators declared them impaired by bacteria and ordered pollution reductions by 2035.

Rains bring high bacteria counts

Oronoco Bay isn’t currently considered impaired by bacteria, though the state hasn’t tested the water there since the 1990s, said DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. Samples taken by the city and reported to DEQ from 2007 to 2012 detected bacteria levels after overflows that exceeded state standards for recreation. Blackford said the bay’s shallow, tidal nature does not make it conducive to swimming anyway, but the city also has posted signs at this and the other outfalls warning people to avoid contact with the water after heavy rains.

Earlier this year, the swimming segment in the Potomac River of the Nation’s Triathlon was canceled because of high levels of E. coli bacteria, an indicator of human waste in the water. Some of the bacteria likely came from the District, because its combined sewer system regularly overflows as well. But boaters and a local high school’s crew team frequent Oronoco Bay on the Alexandria side of the river, where a sign warns of the “combined sewage overflows during and/or following rain.”

At a public meeting in November, one mother of rowing team members from T.C. Williams High School said that her kids often have to jump into the water to pull their boats to the dock. Another resident pointed out that Alexandria adopted an “Eco-City” vision in 2008 that, among other things, pledges to eliminate combined sewage overflows and improve water quality in the Potomac so its waters can be fishable and swimmable, though it doesn’t set a specific deadline.

Alexandria’s Mayor Allison Silberberg said in a statement that the city is “fully committed to being a strong environmental steward and to significantly reducing combined sewer overflows from all four city outfalls, including Oronoco Bay.”

Though that’s a goal, city officials say they are not there yet. Oronoco Bay is so shallow that it nearly empties at low tide and is often choked with algae and dotted with litter.

Though the DEQ required the city to develop a plan for how it would end polluted discharges from three outfalls into that water body as part of its last permit renewal, there is no such mandate for the outfall into Oronoco Bay and the Potomac. Hayden said the DEQ plans to reassess Oronoco Bay’s water quality as part of the permit renewal process for its combined sewer system in 2018.

Activists reject the rationale for letting those overflows go unaddressed for years.

“Nothing is required of them, because they say, ‘It’s a small amount and we’re adding to an already polluted waterway,’” said Phillip Musegaas, legal director at the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. “We think that doesn’t fly. It doesn’t comply with the Clean Water Act and it’s bad public policy.”

In May, the City Council voted to comply with pollution limits for Hunting Creek by building a 1.6-million-gallon storage tunnel and a 3-million-gallon holding tank to store sewage-laced stormwater until it can be processed by the wastewater treatment facility, called Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew). The city estimates this work will cost $188 million and be completed by 2035.

Alexandria said it would initially address the overflows from the fourth outfall by reducing the amount of storm runoff through the installation of “green infrastructure.” But the city’s own plans show that planting more trees and adding permeable pavers to absorb and filter rainfall would reduce runoff getting into the combined sewer system by just 6 percent.

City officials also contend that some of the runoff would be dealt with by major redevelopment planned in the outfall’s drainage area, which would entail developers paying to install stormwater retention infrastructure.

Naujoks criticized the city’s decision not to address the Oronoco Bay outfall at the same time as the others, because officials were already negotiating changes to their long-term control plan. There were no public meetings dedicated to the changes, so his organization urged residents to write the city voicing their concerns.

“I applauded other parts of the plan dealing with (the other outfalls), but you have this gaping hole leaving the largest discharge point in the area with maximum use in place,” Naujoks said of the outfall, near the riverside Oronoco Bay Park. “You cannot revitalize your riverfront and create the next Georgetown right where you’re dumping sewage in your river.”

The public will be able to participate in hearings over the facility’s discharge permit renewal in 2018, the DEQ’s Hayden said, which will factor the latest water quality reports into decisions.

EPA spokesman David Sternberg said the federal agency is reviewing the potential modifications to Alexandria’s combined sewer system to ensure that the changes are “consistent with EPA’s combined sewer overflow policy for achieving water quality standards.”

Alexandria is among about 800 communities in the country that have combined stormwater and sewer pipes, including older municipalities like Philadelphia and the District.

In dry weather, these systems transport all of their sewage and wastewater to a treatment plant before discharging to local water bodies. But, during heavy rains or snowmelts, the systems can be overwhelmed by gushes of untreated water and are designed to then overflow to prevent flooding in the city.

Along with stormwater, these overflows can contain untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and trash. Under prodding and enforcement action from the EPA, many cities are in a decades-long process of overhauling their systems to increase their ability to hold the water that needs to be treated, at great cost, to comply with water quality standards.

DC paying for fixes, too

Water utility customers in the District have had to foot much of the cost for projects meant to end sewage overflows through higher monthly utility bills. Alexandria residents’ bills will be going up, too, to pay for work on the first three outfalls. This will add up to $15 a month to local sewer bills that currently average $45 a month, city officials said. Reducing discharges from the fourth outfall could cost another $130 million, the city estimates, and would require another increase in fees if the city is not successful in getting state or federal grants to defray the cost.

Robert Percival, director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland, said the contrast between DC Water’s actions to reduce its overflows and Alexandria’s is stark — and not just because he’s watched his water bill creep closer to $100 as a resident of the District.

“It’s not like Alexandria is a struggling city. One would think that’s definitely a city that can afford this and, in the 21st century, it’s ridiculous that a place like this is sending 70 million gallons of sewage into the river that they know will have to be cleaned up later,” Percival said. “It seems like a classic case of kicking the can down the road.”

He said citizens don’t have much recourse for legal action on the matter while state and federal agencies are still allowing the overflows, because the city is not violating its permit. Advocates for curtailing the discharges sooner might have more options when the permit is up for renewal in 2018.

One person on a 13-member stakeholder group assembled by Alexandria’s City Council to assess the water treatment plans earlier this year said he’d like to see the city do more than the minimum to treat polluted water before it reaches the Potomac. Though the stakeholder group approved the city’s plans this spring, Jack Sullivan wrote a memo that asked the city to go further to address overflows from the fourth outfall in its current plan.

In response to this and other comments, the City Council did end up asking Alexandria staff to research additional options for both keeping the project on budget and speeding up a timeline for reducing discharges from the fourth outfall. At a meeting on Nov. 9, the council reviewed those options and voted to begin a feasibility study for the fourth outfall in 2018.

Developing a water retention system for this largest outfall would likely result in another rate increase for Alexandria residents, but the city also plans to seek state funds. Richmond and Lynchburg sought bonds from the state totaling $78 million for similar infrastructure improvement projects.

Even with the city’s somewhat accelerated timeline, advocates for the Potomac River aren’t ready to accept the idea of sewage overflows into Oronoco Bay continuing for a couple decades without a firm plan and deadline for stopping them.

“It seems backward that the largest outfall is in the highest use area where most people recreate,” said Naujoks, the riverkeeper. “I just firmly believe that if the city gets enough calls from business leaders and people in Alexandria, they will fix this.”