Fairfax County Water Management – Part I

By: Joe Riley-Ryan

[In this three-part series, Environmental and Water Resources Engineering (EWR) graduate student Joe Riley-Ryan provides an overview of current practices being employed in Fairfax County, Virginia, to ensure a safe drinking water supply, and promote the principles of urban ecology and sustainability. Additionally, Riley-Ryan offers his thoughts on opportunities for improvement.]

It has become widely recognized that major populations centers currently impose stress on the natural environment and will increasingly do so in the future. These areas will require more careful planning and recalibration, if we hope to maintain stability amid the projected global population growth1.

Fairfax County is a mature but ever-evolving suburb of Washington D.C. that provides vast insight into the decisions and policies that an urban area can adopt to work toward a sustainable future. In particular, the County’s approaches to managing water will be examined in this essay and analyzed through the lens of urban ecology and sustainability. Many of the practices and solutions being implemented and tested within the County have the potential to be borrowed and improved upon by other communities as they strive to manage increasing populations and meet their sustainability goals.

According to Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, there is no more important factor in reducing disease and saving lives than adequate potable water supply and sanitation services1. There is no shortage of challenges facing those charged with planning and managing urban water systems in the future, all of which stem from the overarching goal of achieving water sustainability. The challenges each city faces are unique and dependent on their geographic region, population, socioeconomic makeup, culture and lifestyles, and commercial and industrial enterprises operating in the area along with other factors.

Going forward, cities must address leaking water supply systems, water demand and scarcity, the impacts of development on aquatic ecology, aquifer depletion and subsequent land subsidence, the massive energy inputs to treating public water and water required for energy production3, impacts of upstream land uses including agriculture and industry, increased stormwater runoff, and flooding. All of these challenges are expected to be magnified as a result of the changing climate.

There are many existing examples of solutions aligned with the sustainability priorities of those charged with protecting water resources in urban settings. The reuse of “grey water” or partially treated wastewater for demands that don’t require potable water with advanced treatment can reduce a city’s reliance on limited natural water sources4. Producing electricity can require substantial amounts of water3, so conservation can be achieved by investing in energy efficient buildings and green-energy sources on public and private property4. Substantial energy is also required for water and wastewater treatment3, so source protection, conservation, and grey-water reuse can reduce energy inputs and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Water Resources Overview of Fairfax County

Fairfax County, Virginia, is a relatively affluent and quite diverse suburban community west and south of Washington D.C. It currently has a population of more than 1.1 million which is projected to continue to grow6. The County has grappled with many of the sustainability issues surrounding water resources and has been on the front line of proposing and implementing solutions to these challenges. There is a wide array of stakeholders active in the management of water at all of the stages of the water cycle within the County. Some of the important players that touch the urban water cycle in a significant way include:

  • Fairfax Water, the non-profit public water utility
  • Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services: the professionals responsible for the wastewater collection and treatment facilities, stormwater management, and public buildings construction and management (police and fire stations, libraries, government buildings, etc.) serving the County’s residents
  • Fairfax County Park Authority: owner of a large portion of the open space and natural places in the County
  • The development community
  • The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT): responsible for building and maintaining a majority of the roadways in the area
  • State and federal government agencies
  • Local politicians
  • Local citizens, activists, and volunteers

All of the entities listed above approach water management with different ideas and priorities resulting in a range of ever evolving water management practices and projects within the County.

[In the next installment of this series, available February 25th, Riley-Ryan dives deeper into water management issues such as watershed protection, grey-water reuse, and protecting aquatic ecology.]


Joe Riley-Ryan is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Environmental and Water Resources Engineering (EW) Masters Degree program. He has also worked for Fairfax County’s Stormwater Planning Division for the past five years.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Dennis DimickRob Pongsajapan, and anokarina.


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