By Peggy Sanner
Eighteen months ago, Virginia released its Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan, which lays out the steps for achieving a restored Chesapeake Bay and healthy local rivers and streams by 2025. Achieving that goal by the target date will depend on significantly accelerated state investments in the key programs that reduce pollution from farmlands, sewage treatment plants, and the hard surfaces of our cities and suburbs.
Virginians are taking note. Before COVID took hold a year ago, legislators approved historic levels of clean water funding. Since then, despite the pandemic, the resulting economic downturn, and the year’s social and political upheavals, signs of continuing commitment to our waterways and natural environment abound. Visits to state parks are at an all-time high, favorite hiking trails and waterways have been crowded, and many have rediscovered in the outdoors an antidote to stress and anxiety.
Legislators are also recommitting to our lands and waters. Virginia is poised to enact landmark legislation (HB 2129 — Del. Alfonso Lopez and SB 1354— Sen. Emmett Hanger) that will require and direct significant upgrades to many older wastewater treatment plants along the James and York Rivers and other waterways. This work — continuing an effort that has seen great success in earlier phases — will lead to substantial reductions in the pollution that reaches the Chesapeake Bay over the next several years. But funding this effort will require help from the state.
Fortunately, state revenue forecasts are better than had been feared. The budget amendments proposed last week by committees in the House of Delegates and the Senate reflect legislators’ recognition of the importance of this work. Notably, the House Appropriations Committee proposed $150 million in bond funding to help upgrade these plants. A conference committee of legislators, including committee chairs Sen. Janet Howell and Del. Luke Torian, is now negotiating a final state budget for Gov. Ralph Northam’s approval.
Accelerating investments in other effective clean water programs will also be necessary to achieve the goals. The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund reduces polluted runoff, the noxious brew that, during rainstorms, flows off pavement and buildings and into local streams. This money has helped cities and counties across Virginia pay for effective runoff-reducing projects by providing grants for up to half the project’s cost. These investments can also reduce localized flooding issues, which is essential as we see increased precipitation as a result of climate change.
Many of these projects have additional community benefits. New wetlands in Waynesboro created a neighborhood spot where locals enjoy nature and spot wildlife. In James City County, a system of pools and native plants prevents neighborhood flooding. In Northern Virginia, revitalized streams have been a boon to park visitors.
Historically, financially stressed communities have struggled to fund stormwater projects like these. To help address this problem, Sen. Lynwood Lewis introduced a bill this session (SB 1404) that would offer SLAF grants that cover more than 50 percent of a project’s costs to fiscally-stressed localities.
In recognition of all these benefits, the House Appropriations Committee has proposed to add $26 million to SLAF in the current budget round. We urge legislators to ensure this proposal remains during the final negotiations.
Hardworking farmers eager to keep the soil on the land and out of our waterways also need additional funding through the agricultural cost-share program. Farm conservation practices, like fencing cattle out of streams, planting buffers of trees along waterways and implementing rotational grazing systems, are extremely cost-effective ways to improve the health of rivers and streams. As an added benefit, the trees and plants that flourish under these practices address climate change by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and creating healthier soil, which traps carbon.
These efforts also have economic benefits for farmers and for local businesses. While many farmers praise conservation projects, they need support to accomplish more. History has shown that when more state funding is available, more farmers put conservation practices on the ground. As legislators work out the details of the final budget, we urge them to support larger investments in the agricultural cost-share program. The current proposal in the House budget would add up to $69 million to this program. The Senate proposal includes $35 million.
We are grateful to our legislators for their thoughtful work on behalf of Virginians and the commonwealth’s natural resources. But current funding levels for our wastewater, stormwater and agricultural cost-share programs are not enough to meet Virginia’s longstanding pollution-reduction commitments by the 2025 deadline. Restoring the Chesapeake Bay and our precious waterways has always been an ambitious goal. Now, as the 2025 deadline approaches, we must ensure that our commitment — and the necessary funding — remain adequate to the task.
Peggy Sanner is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia executive director.