The American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden enacted on March 11 could offer infrastructure financing solutions to the major pollution problems that have plagued Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg, Va., For more than a century. Together, the three cities are asking Governor Ralph Northam to allocate $ 1.4 billion to support these complex reconstructions, $ 883 million for Richmond, $ 500 million for Alexandria and $ 50 million for Lynchburg. The proposal enjoys strong bipartisan support in the Commonwealth General Assembly ahead of its August 2 special session.
Like many older cities in the United States (and around the Chesapeake watershed), Richmond, Alexandria, and Lynchburg have aging, late 19th-century Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) systems that still drain areas within their corporate boundaries. During heavy rains, these CSOs bypass municipal wastewater treatment plants, sending raw sewage directly into local waterways, in this case the James and Potomac rivers. Solving the problem is difficult and expensive because it involves “rebuilding that part of the city from below”, as one civil engineer described it.
Funding is a particular problem because urban taxpayers alone cannot absorb the enormous cost of fixing these centuries-old systems that seemed like good ideas when they were built. Nonetheless, the Clean Water Act and the Chesapeake Bay pollution control regime require all cities to eliminate these sources of pollution and public health concerns. These three Virginia cities have made strides, at costs reaching hundreds of millions of dollars. The question is always how to pay for complete solutions and what the lead times should be.
Last year, Bay Bulletin reported on a bill passed with bipartisan support by the Virginia General Assembly requiring Richmond to eliminate its discharges by 2035, while “reporting annually on the progress and funding of the work.” The Richmond problem is by far the most important. Last year, James River Association CEO Bill Street offered this assessment of Richmond’s challenge and the role of this legislation in helping the city meet it by 2035. Alexandria’s RiverRenew project is already working towards a deadline of 2025, while Lynchburg plans to complete its Long-Term Plan by 2027.
In response to 2020 legislation setting the Richmond deadline, Natural Resources Secretary Matthew Strickler has already recommended allocating $ 33.3 million from Virginia’s federal COVID-19 relief program. The money would support significant improvements by 2027 but still fail to meet the requirements of the 2035 deadline. If passed, the $ 1.4 billion capital investment proposed by the American Rescue Plan Act would solve three century-old water pollution problems. The James and Potomac Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay are at stake with all who live, work and play along these waterways.
–John Page Williams