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

Richmond says it needs millions more to end overflows for good
The sun sets over the James River in Richmond.
The sun sets over the James River in Richmond.(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Aug. 13, 2021 at 6:59 AM EDT
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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 plugs are 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 flow, 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.”

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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