The Bulletin

Hampton Roads aquifer recharge project gets $477 million EPA loan

By: - September 14, 2021 4:52 pm

The SWIFT Research Center in Suffolk, Va. (HRSD)

A Hampton Roads-wide project intended to recharge the Potomac aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of Virginia’s population east of Interstate 95 received a $477 million loan from the Environmental Protection Agency last week. 

Ted Henifin, general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, said in a news release that the loan will be used to close and replace the nearly 80-year-old Boat Harbor Treatment Plant with a pumping station as part of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure for Tomorrow, or SWIFT, Program. 

In combination with other federally subsidized loans, the EPA award will reduce the district’s financing costs by almost half a billion dollars over the next 30 years, Henifin said. 

The EPA has committed to issue $1 billion in low-interest loans for SWIFT over a decade, financing nearly half of the project costs through federal Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act funds. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District received its first loan of almost $226 million in September 2020. 

Erin Girardi, the sanitation district’s capital program manager, said in an email that the third and final phase of the loan funds “is scheduled to close no earlier than the end of 2024.” 

Under the terms of the loan, the project has to be substantially completed within seven years of loan closing. Girardi said the repayment terms “are very flexible.” 

SWIFT has garnered national headlines since its inception. Encompassing more than 20 projects around Hampton Roads, the initiative treats wastewater to drinking-water standards and then injects it far below ground to recharge the Potomac aquifer. 

Virginia has been fretting for decades about the supply of the aquifer, which was being overdrawn by both local governments and industries, particularly the massive International Paper and WestRock paper mills in Franklin and West Point. Besides depleting water supplies, overuse has also contributed to land subsidence in the low-lying Tidewater region. That subsidence combined with climate change-driven rising seas has led to Hampton Roads experiencing the fastest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast, with tide-gauge data from Sewells Point in Norfolk showing a more than 18-inch rise over the past century. 

In response to concerns, the Department of Environmental Quality embarked on a campaign to reduce the amount of water the 14 largest users of the Potomac aquifer’s supply were permitted to withdraw. 

At the same time, SWIFT has sought to combat the aquifer problem by increasing supply. When fully built out, the initiative is expected to be capable of injecting 100 million gallons of water back into the aquifer every day. In addition to replenishment, the project aims improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by reducing 90 percent of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s wastewater discharges.

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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.