2021 Virginia Legislative Session

Chuck Epes

Legislators pass historic funding to meet clean water goals.

We are entering the final stretch of Virginia’s efforts to reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. Success of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint depends on all of us—from homeowners to farmers and businesses to localities.  The support of state legislators during Virginia’s 2021 legislative session, which ran from January 13 to March 1,  is especially important.

In this year’s session, CBF advocated for legislative priorities to help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams for future generations. We thank our elected leaders for their ongoing commitment to clean water. The following is a summary of key outcomes of the 2021 session.

We urged Virginia legislators to make additional investments in the key programs that reduce polluted runoff into the Commonwealth’s waterways:

  • Reducing Runoff from Farms
    Legislators supported an additional $30 million for the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share (VACS) Program and related technical assistance, for a total of $65 million. This program offers funding and technical support to help farmers adopt sound, cost-effective conservation practices that protect waterways and increase farm productivity. These funds will support farmers who fence cattle out of streams, plant riparian buffers, adopt nutrient management plans on cropland, and follow other conservation practices. Increased funding is leading many more farmers to participate in these programs. This video from the Choose Clean Water Coalition shows this important work in action.
  • Curbing Stormwater Runoff from Developed Lands
    Legislators approved an additional $25 million for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF), which provides grants to help localities keep polluted runoff from waterways, bringing the total biennium funding to $75 million.
    The program supports projects such as wetland construction, living shorelines, stream restorations, and rain gardens. For real-life stories about how the fund is helping communities, see our “Slowing the Flow" blog series.
  • Upgrading Wastewater Treatment Plants
    Legislators approved $100 million to continue upgrading Virginia’s wastewater treatment facilities. The modernization of many of Virginia’s sewage treatment plants has dramatically reduced the amount of pollution they send into rivers. But some plants, especially along the James and York Rivers, have yet to make sorely needed upgrades. Additional funding will help facilities that still need to upgrade, protecting ratepayers from covering those high costs.

Prepare the Next Generation for Environmental Stewardship

CBF supports efforts to expand environmental literacy programs, which unlock opportunities for students and bolster test scores through access to outdoor classrooms and experiential learning. Legislators approved an additional $170,000 for these programs, bringing annual funding to $250,000.

 The Power of Trees: Help Local Governments Expand and Preserve Tree Cover

Planting and preserving trees brings a host of benefits to communities, including addressing local flooding, reducing air and water pollution, cooling neighborhoods prone to extreme heat, creating wildlife habitat, and beautifying communities.

Currently, Virginia law limits how localities can maintain and increase tree planting and preservation when sites are being developed. Legislation passed this session (H.B. 2042 – Delegate Guy and S.B. 1393 – Senator Marsden) will give cities and counties more authority to expand tree cover in specific cases, including addressing recurrent flooding, meeting stormwater (MS4) permit requirements, and remedying the “heat island” legacy of now-outlawed redlining practices. This legislation would allow localities to choose to expand their reliance on trees as a cost-effective tool to tackle these priorities. Before becoming law, a stakeholder group will consider how to best use trees to achieve these multiple benefits and the proposal will be reconsidered in the 2022 session.

Advance Environmental Justice in Virginia

CBF continues to advocate for environmental justice in Virginia. That work focuses, in part, on ensuring that communities most threatened by pollution have a meaningful voice in environmental decisions affecting them.

CBF supported two bills (S.B. 1373 – Senator McClellan and H.B. 2221 – Delegate Hayes) that would require operators of proposed new or expanded polluting facilities to conduct effective community outreach concerning the proposals, including public meetings and newspaper and social media notices, well in advance of submitting applications for environmental permits. Unfortunately, these bills failed this session. 

CBF also supported bills (H.B. 2074 – Delegate Simonds and S.B. 1318 – Senator Hashmi) that would create the Environmental Justice Interagency Workgroup. The bills would also require all state agencies to adopt specific environmental justice policies that ensure meaningful consideration of impacts on affected communities of proposed agency actions, robust public participation plans, and other protections for communities.  Unfortunately this measure did not pass  this session.

Ensure Effective Wastewater Treatment Upgrades

Virginia will not meet its 2025 commitments to reduce pollution under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint without continued upgrades of wastewater treatment plants. Cutting pollution from wastewater is the most reliable path to clean waters.

Two bills that passed this session (H.B. 2129 – Delegate Lopez and S.B. 1354 – Senator Hanger) require upgrades at many Virginia wastewater plants.  CBF worked closely with legislators and partners to strengthen these important bills, which now identify the 30-some  plants that must be upgraded, specify Blueprint-consistent deadlines and  ensure accountability and reliable pollution reductions.

Adding Flexibility and Equity to the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund

The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF) provides grants to localities to complete projects that will reduce polluted runoff. An important bill (S.B. 1404 – Senator Lewis) that passed this session will add flexibility to this program by allowing consideration of nitrogen reductions as well as phosphorus reductions. This change would boost support for many projects with multiple benefits, such as living shorelines and constructed wetlands.

Another amendment to the program will help to address equity concerns. Currently, the SLAF program funds up to 50 percent of eligible project costs, but the legislation would allow grants of higher percentages for projects in fiscally stressed localities. Historically, these communities have struggled to access these funds.

Providing Local Governments Fiscal Flexibility to Address Stormwater and Flooding

Localities are already dealing with recurrent flooding, erosion, and deteriorating stormwater management facilities. These conditions will worsen as climate change leads to increased rainfall in our region.

Legislation approved this session (S.B. 1309 – Senator Ebbin) allows local governments to use local stormwater management funds to address flooding, prioritizing nature-based practices where practicable.  

Help Families Upgrade Failing Septic Systems and Plan for Climate Change

Legislation that passed this session (S.B. 1396 – Senator Hashmi) will create a fund to assist low-income property owners to repair or install septic systems, establish an advisory group to assess wastewater needs, and plan for climate change effects on wastewater treatment systems.

Prevent Pollution from Food Containers and Balloons

The threat of litter from all sources to our rivers, creeks, and oceans has gained well-deserved attention in recent years.

CBF supported two bills that passed this session that would reduce pollution from food containers and balloons, both of which can pollute waterways and harm wildlife. Food vendors and restaurants as well as churches and schools will phase out use of polystyrene food containers under H.B. 1902, introduced by Del. Carr. Releasing nonbiodegradable or photodegradable balloons outdoors will  be banned under H.B. 2159, introduced by Delegate Guy. Currently Virginia only prohibits releases of over 50 balloons.

Increasing Protections for Waterways from Pipeline Projects

In the face of devastating damage to rivers and streams from pipeline construction in recent years, legislators approved an important measure from Senator McClellan (S.B. 1311) requiring interstate pipeline developers to provide the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) with detailed plans early in the process on how they will meet standards to protect waterways from erosion, sediment, and stormwater. Pipeline companies would submit these plans to DEQ at the same time they apply to the federal government for a permit. This measure will aid in agency decision making and increase public transparency.

Study Carbon Sequestration

To mitigate the impacts of climate change, we must consider ways we can store (or sequester) existing carbon dioxide so that it does not reach or remain in our atmosphere. Legislators passed a key proposal from Senator Lewis (S.B. 1374) creating a work group to study carbon sequestration so Virginia can identify opportunities to use its natural resources programs to store carbon.

Taking Stock of Greenhouse Gases

CBF supported S.B. 1282, successful legislation introduced by Senator Morrissey requiring Virginia to conduct an inventory of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth.

Evaluating the Potential Risks of Gold Mines

CBF supported H.B 2213 (Delegate Guzman), successful legislation that asks the Secretaries of Natural Resources, Health and Human Resources, and Commerce and Trade to conduct a study of the risks of gold mining to public health and the environment. The bill would also prohibit issuance of any permit to operate a gold mine larger than 10 acres pending the outcome of the study.

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