September 19, 2021

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Infrastructure investments can help the environment, improve health and create jobs

From Peggy Sanner

The August special legislative session offers Virginia the greatest opportunity in years to invest in infrastructure that will restore the environment, improve public health, and create green jobs. Lawmakers will determine how Virginia will use approximately $ 4.3 billion in federal funds from the US bailout plan. Conservation groups across the Commonwealth are urging lawmakers to invest a fraction of that money in clean water infrastructure projects that will bring tremendous long-term benefits.

Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg have long struggled with outdated mixed water systems. An unfortunate legacy of the 19th centuryNS In the 19th century, these systems were developed to mix raw sewage and rainwater during periods of heavy rainfall and divert the overflow – millions of gallons of untreated human sewage – into the James and Potomac Rivers. This overflow contaminates rivers with nitrogen and phosphorus as well as bacteria E. coli, Health hazards to swimmers, paddlers, and others who spend time on the river.

All three cities are making steady progress in modernizing their mixed water systems. You have detailed plans to finish the job, but the work is hard and expensive. Endorsing Governor Ralph Northam for a $ 125 million investment in this work is an important step forward, but more needs to be done.

Without additional federal and state funds, residents with lower incomes could be confronted with challenging, higher wastewater bills. That burden could be significantly reduced by allocating a total of $ 250 million in federal funding to modernize the combined sewer systems in these cities, especially when allocated based on the workload of each city and the financial needs of each community. This move would also remove public health risks and encourage new jobs.

In rural areas, homeowners who are not connected to public sewage treatment are dependent on sewage treatment plants. When they get old, failing sewage treatment plants secure the toilets, leave smelly, muddy stains in the garden and discharge sewage into the environment. This increases the bacteria in the waterways, which makes swimming or eating oysters and other seafood dangerous.

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

Repairing a septic system can cost thousands of dollars, well beyond the financial resources of many families. Governor Northam has pledged to use federal funds to address this issue. We believe that a $ 100 million federal investment would help thousands of families manage this health hazard, clean up waterways, and even boost local businesses to install sewage treatment plants.

We don’t often see trees as infrastructure, but they play an outsized role in Virginia’s neighborhoods. Think about how only a tree can provide a cooling oasis of shade on a hot August day. Research shows that in Richmond and other cities, neighborhoods with fewer trees can be more than a dozen degrees hotter than tree-covered areas. These hot spots are often the ones Legacy of divestment through redlining, a now banned practice that denied credit to predominantly black neighborhoods. The resulting extreme heat can be dangerous for residents, leading to emergency calls and even death.

As extremely hot days are increasing due to climate change, Virginia loses approximately 56,000 acres of trees each year directly within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to current estimates. Increasing and expanding tree cover can help cool neighborhoods while creating green space for the neighborhood. Trees reduce polluted runoff in waterways and help fight local flooding. Investing $ 50 million in the Department of Forestry’s urban and communal forest programs would make a big difference for neighborhoods while helping local jobs with planting, mulching and tending trees.

The availability of federal funding has also created the opportunity to modernize the infrastructure needed to meet Virginia’s long-standing commitments to restore Chesapeake Bay by 2025. Laws passed earlier this year require many wastewater treatment plants in Virginia to upgrade to significantly reduce the pollution they discharge into rivers. Governor Northam has pledged his support for substantial funding for this work. We are pushing for an additional $ 200 million in federal funding to help the factories complete these projects

Great Egret and Mallard Duck on eroding swamp near Poplar Island in Talbot County, Maryland on May 20, 2010. (Photo by Alicia Pimental / Chesapeake Bay Program)

Cities and counties are also working hard to update rainwater infrastructure to relieve flooding and prevent polluted runoff from local rivers, creeks and Chesapeake Bay. While Virginia’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund provides grants, funding has always lagged well below needs. An additional $ 80 million investment in the program would help communities expedite this work to protect local streams and advance Virginia to meet the bay’s restoration goals.

With unprecedented federal funding coming to Virginia, lawmakers have a historic chance when they meet this August under the direction of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, Senate President Justin Fairfax, and the President for the time Louise Lucas and House Chairman Luke Torian and Finance Senator’s Chairwoman Janet Howell. We urge them to take this opportunity to make progress on the serious, often neglected infrastructure needs for the environment and the health and wellbeing of residents.

Peggy Sanner is the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia. This column describes the priorities for clean water in this special session for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Friends of the Rappahannock, James River Association, Potomac Conservancy, Potomac Riverkeeper Network, Virginia Conservation Network, Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, and Virginia League of Conservation Voters.