$125M puts ‘meaningful dent’ in plans to halt sewage flow into Virginia rivers

Richmond says it needs millions more to end overflows for good

By: - August 13, 2021 12:02 am

The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

For decades, three Virginia cities along the James and Potomac rivers have been pouring money into efforts to halt the flow of sewage into the waterways during heavy rainstorms and flooding. 

Now, flush with $4.3 billion in American Relief Plan Act cash, the state has what Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Director Peggy Sanner called “a $50 million plug” for Richmond’s problems. Another $50 million plug is earmarked for Alexandria, with a smaller $25 million one destined for Lynchburg, 100 miles upstream of Richmond. 

When combined with local matching funds, the money is enough to finish off the fixes to Lynchburg’s infrastructure needed to stop the flow of sewage into the James by 2026, said Timothy Mitchell, the city’s director of water resources. 

“Without the funding, from now it would be another 10 to 15 years” to complete the work, he said. 

Together, the $125 million proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam this July and passed as part of a compromise budget by the Virginia legislature Monday will give Lynchburg, Alexandria and Richmond major boosts in their efforts to separate out their stormwater and sewage flows, allowing them to divert sewage from the waterways where it has all too frequently ended up for more than a century. 

Nevertheless, daunting challenges remain. Nowhere are they more pressing than in Richmond, where officials estimate that an additional $883 million is needed to complete their work. 

In 2020, as the General Assembly prepared to put Richmond’s cleanup on a more aggressive timeline that would ultimately set a 2035 deadline to halt the flows of sewage into the James, the city told lawmakers state funds would be necessary. 

“In order to advance the timeline, we need substantial state assistance,” Ron Jordan, a lobbyist for the city, told a Senate committee. “And we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars here.” 

This July, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney struck a similar note during a press conference following Northam’s proposal to put $50 million toward Richmond’s efforts.

“Consider that our entire general fund city budget last year was $770 million and you will have an idea of the scale of this challenge that we have ahead,” said Stoney. “So the question is, ‘How do we get there?’ And the answer to this very big bill is very simple. We as the city of Richmond can’t do it alone. Without financial assistance from the federal and state government, Richmond wastewater utility rates will skyrocket.”

Overhauling century-old infrastructure

The problem in all three cities stems from a form of 19-century infrastructure known as the combined sewer overflow system. In a combined sewer system, stormwater and wastewater flow through the same pipes. Under normal conditions, this runoff is directed to a wastewater treatment plant. But when precipitation is heavy, the system quickly becomes overwhelmed, sending both stormwater and untreated sewage into the river at overflow points. 

Once common in cities developed prior to World War I, these combined systems began to be separated out by local governments around the middle of the 20th century as they realized the pollution they produced. Weekly E.coli monitoring conducted by the James River Association between Memorial Day and Labor Day at Rockett’s Landing in Richmond has found that since 2014, only 66 percent of samples met water quality standards. 

“This is what’s making the James not swimmable, not fishable for a good chunk of the summer,” said Jamie Brunkow, an advocacy manager with the group and the James Riverkeeper. 

One 1990 report to the General Assembly and governor found that “several localities, including Ashland, Bristol, Cape Charles, Colonial Heights, Fredericksburg, Newport News, Radford, Roanoke, and Waynesboro have corrected their CSO problem.” 

Then, as now, Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg remained a challenge. 

At the time of the 1990 report, Alexandria’s combined sewer system served an area of 730 acres, while Lynchburg’s served 8,300. Today, Richmond’s system continues to cover 12,000 acres — approximately one-third of the city.

Each city also had to contend with different numbers of outfalls, the sites where sewage and water overflow during a downpour. At the time it began grappling with the problem in the 1970s, Lynchburg had 132. Richmond has had as many as 46, according to officials, although the number has since been reduced by more than half. 

Over the years, engineers have rolled out a range of fixes to combined sewer systems. Besides separating out stormwater and wastewater pipes, they have dug tunnels and basins to contain overflows, expanded wastewater treatment plants and installed “green” infrastructure to reduce the flow of stormwater into drains. 

None of the solutions has come cheaply. In a letter to Northam asking for roughly $1.4 billion in federal relief funds this June, Alexandria wastewater authority Alexandria Renew Enterprises calculated it had spent $115 million, Lynchburg more than $300 million and Richmond $312 million on their combined sewer systems. 

Additional pressure has come from the General Assembly, which is eager to see the projects completed. In 2017, the legislature passed a law requiring Alexandria to finish its sewer overhaul by 2025. In 2020, it ordered Richmond to complete work by 2035. 

‘Not too worried’ about local match

For Lynchburg, the end is in sight. 

The $25 million in the relief budget “with the local match will finish our program,” said city water resources director Mitchell. With that done, other long-ignored sewer needs that “really haven’t been a priority over the years because combined sewer overflow has been the priority” can finally be addressed, he added. 

How the cities intend to come up with the matching funds required by lawmakers remains to be seen. 

Mitchell said American Rescue Plan Act funds allotted by the federal government directly to the city could be one option, as could funds from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The massive infrastructure bill being pushed by President Joe Biden’s administration that was passed by the U.S. Senate Tuesday would swell the fund’s coffers by $2.4 billion. 

Karen Pallansch, general manager and CEO of AlexRenew, said she was “not too worried” about coming up with local funds. 

“We believe we’ll find what we need to make that $50 million match,” she said —  although, she pointed out, AlexRenew will need to seek an amendment to the budget in January to fix language that directs the appropriation to the city of Alexandria, rather than the authority.

An amendment that would have corrected the oversight was put forward earlier in this August’s special session by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, but did not make it into the compromise budget approved Monday. 

Avoiding rate shock

For Alexandria and Richmond, the new infusion of cash represents only a fraction of the costs remaining to complete the cities’ sewer projects, but it is nevertheless what Brunkow of the James River Association called “a meaningful dent.” 

Both cities face daunting investments. AlexRenew expects to pony up an additional $500 million to complete a massive tunnel two miles long, 12 feet wide and 120 feet deep below Alexandria and the adjacent Potomac River to carry and store excess wastewater. Richmond, whose final plan is still pending, estimates additional costs of $883 million. 

Officials with AlexRenew as well as the city of Richmond have emphasized the need for financial assistance largely to avoid “rate shock” for city sewer customers. 

The General Assembly’s 2017 legislation setting a 2025 deadline for Alexandria’s combined sewer project “disallowed AlexRenew the ability to spread reasonable rate adjustments over a longer planning period,” AlexRenew wrote in the June appeal to Northam for relief funds; “this places a significant financial burden on residents.” 

Prior to the state budget’s appropriation of $125 million for combined sewer work, the authority estimated that Alexandria customers will see monthly bills rise by $20 by 2025, with each household contributing $5,000 in total to the project. In Richmond, annual sewer rates are expected to triple, from $700 to $2,200, without outside assistance.

“This is not only unaffordable, but in a city that still has more than a fifth of our population living at or below the poverty line, more than 54 percent of whom are people of color, this is inequitable,” said Richmond Mayor Stoney during the July press conference. 

Pallansch said the $50 million directed to Alexandria under the state budget will help ease some of those burdens, particularly when coupled with an extra $50 million in grants the authority has received from the state and a final $40 million expected to be included in the next biennial budget.

“The goal is that the receipt and use of these funds will help us manage sewer rate increases within more affordable levels to minimize the rate shock of dramatic increases in rates over a very short timeframe, fund needed capital programs on AlexRenew’s books that had (been) deferred in order to meet (the project’s) aggressive timeline and very large cost, and to better manage AlexRenew’s long term debt burden,” she wrote in an email. 

In Richmond, the $50 million is expected to cover the city’s interim plan, another requirement of the General Assembly’s 2020 law accelerating the cleanup. That plan, which was submitted to the state in July, identifies 10 projects to be immediately completed at a cost of $33.3 million. 

In total, the work is projected to cut overflows by 182 million gallons annually — still far less than the roughly 2 billion gallons of untreated sewage that flows into the James every year. 

“This is the driver for local water quality,” said Brunkow. And while “it’s one thing that we’ve gotten accustomed to” the overflows, he added, “the reality is that we shouldn’t have to. Residents, regardless of where they live in the city, deserve access to clean water.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.