A golden riffleshell mussel gets placed in Indian Creek, a tributary of the Clinch River, near Richlands in Tazewell County. (Gary Peeples/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Southwest Virginians have long looked beneath the surface of the rugged coalfield region for wealth and opportunity. But just below the asphalt and concrete of the communities that dot its ridges and valleys, the area’s aging and dilapidated wastewater systems are draining the coffers of localities already strapped for cash. 

Across Virginia, water and wastewater systems are some of the biggest headaches for rural towns and counties. Small populations mean fewer customers to pay for repairs, while less industry and economic activity mean declining tax bases. 

Yet even against this backdrop, Southwest Virginia stands out. The rocky, mountainous topography poses special — and expensive — engineering challenges and local governments have unusually limited financial resources to deal with them. The barriers localities in the region face are daunting. According to estimates by the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Virginia program, population has fallen by 2 to 3 percent since 2010, the workforce is rapidly aging and the median household income is only about 65 percent of the state average. 

“The answer to the problem is to increase rates,” said Aaron Sizemore, executive director of the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission, which helps six counties and two cities stretching from Carroll west to Washington County find regional solutions to problems. “But are you really going to have the highest rates in the state and have the lowest income averages in the state?

“You feel like every day you have to thread the needle,” he said. 

It’s that “different and unique” set of circumstances, found nearly uniformly across the region, that caught the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s attention, said Bill Spencer, a project manager with the Southwest Regional Office in Abingdon. A native of the area, Spencer has been watching local governments struggle to contain wide-reaching sewer infrastructure problems in a patchwork fashion for years.

“Sometimes in the priority list of things to be taken care of, the wastewater collection system falls toward the bottom of the list,” he said. Insufficient funds to make a more minor repair in the short term can lead localities to push off fixes until they become so severe that they cause a crisis — an approach Spencer describes as “run to fail.” 

Hoping to avert another cascade of failures, DEQ is trying out a new approach: an initiative led by Spencer called the Southwest Virginia Pilot Program that offers the region’s 13 counties and three cities financial assistance to conduct studies called sewer system evaluation surveys. The department will forgive loans of up to 75 percent of the survey cost, with the local government chipping in the remaining 25 percent. If the program is successful, DEQ aims to replicate in elsewhere in the state as well.

The hope, said Spencer, is that by funding comprehensive planning before moving onto construction, the agency can help the localities get the most bang out of their limited bucks. 

Financial constraints were clearly “a deterrent to communities evaluating their sewer system collection systems,” he said. So the question was: “How can we encourage them to go ahead and take that on?” 

The first round, which the State Water Control Board signed off on in September, will funnel a total of more than $1.1 million to 13 local governments and authorities. Further funding will come from the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission, which has pledged more than $215,000 to nine of the projects.

Dahmon Ball, administrator of the Tazewell County Public Service Authority, said the program was launched just in time. Shortly after the announcement, DEQ alerted the 34-year-old system that it had exceeded flow limits in its discharge permit for more than three months in a row. 

The authority is scheduled to receive $45,000, and Ball has plans for a 16-month study of how his system operates, particularly in times of high rainfall that can cause runoff and groundwater to infiltrate pipes and compromise the whole network. 

“We do general maintenance on our systems anyway,” he said. “But when a system gets this old, a study needs to be done.” 

‘Putting their finger’ on the region

For many, what stands out about the new pilot program is the fresh focus the state is giving to Southwest Virginia, a region that lies hundreds of miles west of Richmond and where some residents complain of being overlooked by Virginians who might think the state ends at Blacksburg. (In fact, it’s an almost four-hour drive from the home of Virginia Tech to Cumberland Gap at Virginia’s far western tip.)

“It seems like the newness of this program is kind of DEQ putting their finger on it,” said Sizemore of the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission. 

After all, the region’s wastewater infrastructure has been a recognized problem for decades, going back in many cases to communities’ origins. 

“A lot of their infrastructure was built by the private sector, because they were factory towns or coal camps,” said Brian Reed, deputy director of the Mount Rogers PDC and the manager of its water and wastewater program. “And when those industries left, they essentially abandoned the infrastructure and the localities had to take it over.” 

Since then, both the federal and state governments have periodically revisited the issue. The Appalachian Regional Commission, created by Congress in 1963 to help the economically distressed regions that had been debilitated by decades of intensive resource extraction and geographic isolation, has long identified inadequate water and wastewater infrastructure as a key priority area. In Virginia, a 2005 state report called the development of public wastewater infrastructure “one of the most challenging issues facing local governments” in the region. Not only were aging systems posing public health threats, the report concluded, but “many households” were “discharging into inadequate septic systems or discharging directly into streams, affecting environmental quality.” 

The latter concern has only grown in importance as Southwest Virginia, facing steep declines in the coal industry, has sought to pivot to tourism. At the heart of its strategy is the Clinch River, a biodiversity hotspot that is home its rare mussel species, 24 of which are endangered. 

The Clinch’s headwaters lie in Tazewell, Public Service Authority Administrator Ball pointed out, as do those of three other water bodies: the Little River, the Bluestone and Clear Fork Creek. Any leaching from sewer systems or other malfunctions could endanger those prized resources. 

 “It’s a true resource for us,” said Spencer. “We’re not just thinking about these socioeconomic and demographic hardships that the communities are facing. We’re also looking at our own surface water resources.”