The following first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
As Virginians, we have much to be thankful for these days when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay and our rivers that feed it. We've witnessed the return of underwater grasses in some areas of the James River, the resurgence of our iconic Chesapeake oyster industry in many Virginia tributaries, and the arrival of surprisingly clear water in the bay just last fall.
But thousands of miles of our rivers and streams are still damaged by pollution and listed as impaired waters by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
With the General Assembly now in full swing, the commonwealth's legislators should fully fund the clean water projects that will continue the encouraging improvements we've seen.
Restoring Virginia's waters is the right thing to do. A federal-state partnership has developed the Clean Water Blueprint to clean up the region's waterways, and Virginia is making steady progress toward meeting its goals.
Programs underway across the state are helping Virginia meet its commitments to cleaner water. In Richmond and other urban and suburban areas, localities are better controlling polluted runoff washing off hard surfaces such as streets, parking lots and sidewalks. In a long-term successful program, Virginia's sewage treatment plants are installing technologies that ensure cleaner water in local rivers. In rural parts of the commonwealth, farmers are putting practices on the ground that keep pollution out of waterways.
All of these projects desperately depend on state dollars for success. It's a wise investment, given that the cost of implementing the Clean Water Blueprint is estimated to come back fourfold in economic benefits. In fact, Virginia stands to see an $8.3 billion increase annually in economic value from taking the actions necessary to restore water quality, according to a peer-reviewed report commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Cleaner waterways boost our economy through recreation, tourism, commercial fishing, higher property values, and better quality of life. Here in Richmond, we're starting to reap the rewards of a significantly restored James River--once closed down due to kepone and other pollutants and now the city's most popular attraction. Our river has become a mecca for boaters, hikers, paddlers, and fishermen; festivals are celebrated all summer along its banks; and the James is the focus of commercial and residential redevelopment projects.
This General Assembly session, Virginia's legislators are considering budget proposals to fund programs that will make a big difference. For example, some of the most cost-efficient steps to restore waterways are farm conservation practices like fencing cattle out of waterways, and planting waterside trees and cover crops. Farmers have been eager to do their share, with so many signing up for a state cost-share program to keep cattle from streams that there's now a hefty backlog in funding. Nearly 1,200 stream-fencing applications are still pending, according to recent numbers by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
We can't let these farmers down. Addressing this backlog will spread proven farm practices and help Virginia meet water quality goals. Legislators should approve budget amendments introduced by Sen. Lynwood Lewis and Del. Michael Webert that would increase funding for farm conservation practices to a total of $82.6 million next fiscal year and $86 million the following year.
State funding can also help localities make long-needed upgrades to reduce pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund provides matching grants to localities for effective, shovel-ready projects. This program needs $50 million annually, as reported by the coalition of businesses and conservation organizations VirginiaForever. Accordingly, the General Assembly should adopt budget proposals for stormwater funding offered by Sen. Emmett Hanger and Dels. Steven Landes and Alfonso Lopez.
Sewage plant upgrades are another potential success story. While the installation of new technology has helped wastewater treatment plants prevent untreated sewage and other harmful pollutants from entering our waterways, the modernization process isn't finished yet. To ensure that this vital work is completed, legislators should support the $59 million for wastewater treatment plant upgrades proposed by the governor and included in bills introduced by Hanger and Landes.
Our rivers, our streams, and the bay are a key part of our culture; they provide recreation and water to drink, and they boost the economy. Please ask your legislator to support full funding for Virginia's clean water programs. The health of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay depends on it.
--Rebecca LePrell, CBF Virginia Executive Director