Fairfax County Water Management – Part III

By: Joe Riley-Ryan

[In Part I of this three-part series, Environmental and Water Resources Engineering (EWR) graduate student Joe Riley-Ryan introduced the need for careful sustainability planning using Fairfax County, Virginia as an example, and in Part II, Riley-Ryan discussed specific issues such as watershed protection, grey water reuse, and protecting aquatic ecology. Joe concludes with a discussion of the impacts of land development and new construction, managing water and roadways, and the county’s outreach and education efforts.]

Private developers are key players in the management of water within the County, as they can provide some of the best opportunities to achieve a sustainable future due to their real investment of resources in local communities. Fairfax County has several areas within it, which currently or will soon meet most definitions of what makes an area urban. The one that gets the most press is Tysons, which bills itself as “America’s next great city.” Another significant area is Reston, located in the Dulles International Airport area, which has a booming technology sector and is growing rapidly14. Both of these areas, not coincidentally, were included in a massive undertaking by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the oversight body for the D.C. region’s subway system or Metro, to extend a line west through Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County.

Land Development and New Construction

Development in Tysons is governed by the Tysons Comprehensive Plan, which set forth ambitious goals for the community in key areas including multimodal transportation, transit-oriented land development, green buildings, and providing parks and open space, among others14. The vision that was ultimately agreed upon by the County’s Board of Supervisors, local residents, and development industry representatives, provides an idyllic long-term vision of a city that would look a lot like what those endorsing the sustainable-city movement would envision in 50 to 100 years. The transformation process is underway in Tysons, and the area which was a textbook example of urban sprawl with its massive malls, auto dealerships, and respective parking lots is being converted to a high-density, transit-oriented, mixed-use community.

The types of redevelopment and new development prevalent in Fairfax County communities have significant implications on the sustainability of water resources. By abiding by the requirements in local ordinances, developers are helping the County meet many of its water sustainability objectives. One way they are contributing is by meeting requirements for water-use efficiencies and conservation in green-building programs such as LEED.

While it may not be cost effective to retrofit older buildings with dated but still functioning water fixtures with newer, more efficient versions, it is a no-brainer for new construction, since water saving fixtures are standard plumbing products, which can now be found at low prices15. Another positive initiative being tackled through the development process is reducing the negative impacts of impervious surfaces on local and regional water bodies. This occurs by implementing low-impact development techniques, including green stormwater infrastructure facilities, and in the case of the Tysons Plan, requiring the retention of the first inch of stormwater runoff on site to protect local streams16.

Also, developers contribute by building or providing monetary proffers for the parks and open spaces, which have a wide variety of benefits including protecting water resources. The jury is still out on whether Tysons will live up to its claim of being “America’s next great city” and provide a blueprint for sustainable urban centers of the future, but it will certainly provide an intriguing case study.

Water Management with Roadways

In urban areas such as Fairfax County, public roadways can comprise upwards of 35% of the total land cover19. This provides a massive opportunity for municipalities to re-envision how these areas are planned and managed to help address a variety of Sustainable Development Goals and the quest for true sustainability. “Green Streets” employ a variety of green infrastructure practices, including the use of vegetation and green stormwater infrastructure to promote urban hydrology that more closely matches that of a more natural watershed of primarily forested and open-space land cover20Inspired by the “green streets” of cities in the Pacific Northwest, Fairfax County has implemented a “green street” in the Franklin Park and Chesterbrook neighborhood of McLean, VA21.

The driver of this project and one of its benefits was providing credit toward the County’s Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements, as set by the EPA. The project also succeeded in upgrading the existing stormwater infrastructure, which was aging and inadequate, especially considering the redevelopment or “mansionization” (converting the original modest homes in the neighborhood into large custom homes with much higher levels of impervious cover) that has contributed to higher runoff levels in this area. By partnering with VDOT to repave the deteriorating roads in the neighborhood, runoff was more effectively conveyed into the new drainage facilities.

Since the completion of construction, some deficiencies have been noted, and there are plans to address them. Also, the system has been overwhelmed by some high-intensity storms that have a low statistical probability of occurring and have therefore historically been deemed outside of the County’s level of service to convey. However, overall the project accomplished its goals and has provided a blueprint for the County to build on and improve upon for future projects. Moving forward, it is likely that the County will need to consider increasing the flow rate of stormwater runoff that they manage due to the apparent trend of increasing frequency of high-intensity storms22.

Another ambitious undertaking within the County is the Embark Richmond Highway project, which includes the revitalization of a stretch of Richmond Highway and adjacent properties in the Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County23. This project consists of a partnership between the County and VDOT to reorient the road corridor to focus on multimodal transportation, including new Bus Rapid Transit lanes, car lanes, and bicycle and pedestrian paths, and to incorporate advanced stormwater-management techniques into the redevelopment.

These projects are examples of the types of opportunities that are available and should be explored further. By realigning their traditional views of road right-of-ways from being car-centric to being multipurpose community assets, municipalities have the potential to have a significant impact on sustainability in historically underutilized spaces.

Outreach and Education

An area that cannot be overlooked in the hope to achieve sustainability in water resources management is reaching out to and educating the public on this topic. Fairfax County’s MS4 permit includes educational components that have resulted in programs aimed at making sure all public school students in the County are exposed to water resources curriculum in the classroom17.  Other methods the County uses to convey messages of the importance of sustainability to the community, who will ultimately be the deciding factor on how much importance is placed on these objectives, include educational signs, public meetings, mailings, and online resources and videos.

By fostering citizen activists, substantial jumps can be made, and progress can be accelerated in sustainability objectives. Citizens can put pressure on elected officials, public servants, and development professionals to consider and truly address the issues that are important to the people. Also, volunteerism can have real impact on the protection and improvement of local water resources. Stream cleanup efforts, which help promote a sense of ownership and motivate people to advocate for healthy local ecological features, are regularly performed in Fairfax County streams18.

Future Outlook

At this moment, Fairfax County is still a car-centric suburban community and would likely be labeled an “unsustainable” municipality by many champions of the sustainability movement. However, in the field of managing the water cycle, many advanced approaches have been considered, implemented, evolved and improved upon by the many stakeholders who are tasked with protecting this vital resource in the County.

While much work is needed to ensure Fairfax County will continue to thrive in an uncertain future, I believe it has shown in the actions it has taken to date that it will be up to the task and will serve as a leader and partner to other urban areas around the world with similar goals.


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: Fairfax County, Fairfax County, Fairfax County, and Oblivious Dude.


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