The Bulletin

Virginia pledges to reduce polluted runoff from state lands as part of Chesapeake Bay cleanup 

By: - June 3, 2021 1:09 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam signs an executive directive outlining pollution reduction plans for state-owned lands on June 3, 2021. (Office of Gov. Ralph Northam)

Gov. Ralph Northam is looking to shed some pounds — 122,000 of nitrogen and 10,100 of phosphorus, to be exact. 

The pledge, which came in the form of an executive directive signed by Northam Thursday morning, commits Virginia agencies and higher education institutions to a series of steps that aim to significantly reduce the amount of pollution that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. 

“State agencies and institutions of higher education must take the same steps to restore the Chesapeake Bay that the commonwealth is expecting of farmers, homeowners, private businesses and local governments,” Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler said in a news release from the governor’s office. 

Nitrogen and phosphorus are key targets of decades-long efforts by states and the federal government to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Excess quantities of these nutrients cause overproduction of algae and deplete oxygen in the water, leading to mass die-offs of aquatic plants, fish and shellfish.

More than half of Virginia’s land area and three-quarters of its residents fall within the bay watershed. Of that footprint, the state owns some 440,000 acres spanning everything from forests to urban parcels of land, all of which produce varying levels and types of runoff that eventually end up in the nation’s largest estuary. According to conservative estimates, just shy of 400,000 of those acres aren’t already covered by municipal stormwater permits. 

Among the series of steps outlined in the State Lands Watershed Improvement Plan are the replacement of managed turf — think your average lawn cover — with native grass and shrubs or native tree canopy, new evaluations of stormwater runoff, agency plans to protect and restore tree canopies and forest buffers along streams and the creation of a “clean water jobs training collaborative.” 

The largest pollution reductions are planned for the James River basin, where the state owns almost 250,000 acres.  

Another provision in the newly released plan calls for the reestablishment of the Department of Forestry’s New Kent County tree nursery to produce seedlings “dedicated to restoring forest buffers throughout the commonwealth and provided at cost to state agencies and public institutions of higher education.” State foresters have voiced concerns about future shortages of seedlings as bay cleanup efforts continue and interest in carbon markets grows. 

The nursery reestablishment would cost an estimated $2.5 million. Deputy State Forester Ed Zimmer said in an email that the funding would have to be appropriated by the General Assembly. 

“Much like Augusta and our Sussex pine nursery, this would be one-time money and ongoing operations would be funded by seedling sales,” he wrote.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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