Success of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint depends on commitments and actions by all of us—homeowners, farmers, industry leaders, developers, and more—to reduce pollution to our waterways. As the recent State of the Blueprint report shows, time is running out. A healthy Bay, clean streams, and resilient rivers are at risk without a major acceleration in pollution reduction.
The Virginia General Assembly provided many opportunities to vote on proposals that will impact the health of Virginia’s rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay. CBF worked to ensure legislators prioritized restoration of the Bay and local waterways so that future generations can enjoy their beauty and bounty. Below are some of the bills that CBF focused on during the 2022 legislative session.
Fund Clean Water Programs at Record Levels to Achieve Blueprint Goals by 2025
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin signed a two-year state budget that provides historic levels of investment in farm conservation practices and other programs to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams.
This bipartisan budget includes funding crucial to meeting Virginia’s commitment in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint to ensure the necessary water quality practices are in place by 2025. The final budget includes the following funding levels for clean water programs:
- The Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share and related programs: The new appropriations will, for the first time ever, provide full support over two years for programs that assist farmers who adopt conservation practices. The investments include approximately $280 million to the Natural Resources Commitment Fund, as well as $15.9 million in a reserve account that could be applied to the third year. An additional $40.6 million supports effective conservation practices in forest and stormwater management, and other programs to reduce pollution from nonpoint sources. Farmers across the state rely on the program to implement these practices, and increased funding attracts more farmers to take part. To see how farmers implement these practices, check out this video.
- The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF) will receive $25 million over the two-year period. We had urged legislators to appropriate $100 million for SLAF to help cities and counties reduce polluted runoff from urban and suburban lands. SLAF provides matching grants to localities for projects such as wetland construction, living shorelines, stream restorations, and rain gardens. To see how the fund is helping communities, see our “Slowing the Flow" blog series.
- Outdated Combined Sewer System (CSS) modernization will receive a total of $165 million ($100 million for Richmond, $40 million for Alexandria, and $25 million for Lynchburg) to stop the flow of raw sewage into the James and Potomac rivers after heavy rainfalls.
- Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrades: Sewage treatment facilities in communities across the Commonwealth will receive approximately $70 million for upgrades that reduce nutrient and sediment pollution.
- Environmental Education efforts will receive $700,000 for coordination of statewide environmental literacy initiatives, as well as $500,000 for grants to programs that provide students with Chesapeake Bay meaningful watershed educational experiences.
- Mussel restoration will receive $400,000 to assist the Department of Wildlife Resources in restoration and protection of Virginia’s many freshwater mussel species. Freshwater mussels filter and clean water in streams, yet Virginia’s mussels are increasingly threatened by pollution and loss of habitat.
- The Department of Forestry will receive $4 million for the Trees for Clean Water program and the New Kent Nursery will receive critical funding to bring its fallow fields back on line. The Urban and Community Forestry grants, which help localities conduct tree canopy and heat island assessments, was not funded in the Commonwealth’s final budget.
We are grateful to the Governor and the General Assembly for providing critical funds to protect and restore Virginia’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay for all its residents.
Assisting Localities to Enhance Tree Canopies
According to preliminary data, Virginia is modifying an astounding 47,000 acres of forests and non-urban tree canopy per year. Some of these acres will be replanted for future timber harvests, but some are lost to development, utility scale solar, and disease. We must take steps to protect our valuable tree canopies, which reduce local flooding and polluted stormwater runoff, reduce heat-related illnesses in cities, lower energy consumption, sequester carbon, and ensure livable communities and valuable wildlife habitat.
Currently Virginia law limits localities’ abilities to maintain their tree canopies during development. Two bills, Senator Marsden’s Senate Bill 537 and Delegate Bulova’s House Bill 1346, would give cities and counties additional authority to conserve and expand tree cover in specific cases. Unfortunately, Delegate Bulova’s bill was rejected in subcommittee, but Senator Marsden’s bill was amended, passed, and is on its way to the Governor’s desk for signature. As amended, SB 537 requires a stakeholder group to give additional consideration to the section of the bill that deals with tree preservation. That section will be reintroduced for legislative action in the 2023 General Assembly session.
Increasing Virginia’s Resilience to Flooding While Protecting Water Quality
In the last several years, Virginia has taken several major steps to enhance its resiliency in the face of more severe weather and a changing climate. Protecting these measures is and will continue to be a priority. Notably, despite multiple attempts to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the state, for now, remains in this important market-based program to cap and reduce carbon emissions from power generators. This program supports the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, which provides grants to localities across the state—from Winchester to Hampton, Danville to Fairfax—to build desperately-needed resiliency against coastal and inland flooding.
House Bill 1301 (introduced by Delegate Terry Kilgore) and Senate Bill 532 (introduced by Senator Richard Stuart) would have repealed the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act that authorizes RGGI. Both bills were defeated in the senate.
CBF supported Senate Bill 551 (introduced by Senator David Marsden) and its companion bill in the House, House Bill 516 (introduced by Delegate David Bulova), which implement recommendations made in the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan, which was developed last year. Both bills passed and are on their way to the Governor’s desk for signature. The Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan aims to protect communities vulnerable to flooding and provides a roadmap for adapting to climate change. The master plan identifies priority resiliency projects, financing strategies, and a plan for coordination among state, federal, and local governments.
In addition, CBF supported several bills offered by Senator Lynwood Lewis intended to integrate statewide flooding and resilience planning and responses across the Commonwealth. Senate Bill 508, which shifts administration of the Community Flood Preparedness Fund to the Soil and Water Conservation Board, and Senate Bill 756, which creates the Resilient Virginia Revolving Loan Fund to provide loans and grants for resiliency projects, passed.
Recently, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission finalized guidelines intended to protect tidal wetlands from sea level rise and other climate change impacts. And the Department of Environmental Quality developed regulations to guide localities in taking sea level rise and climate change into account in considering land use proposals for Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas. These advances are important measures to help Virginia residents safely address climate change impacts while protecting water quality in our streams and the Bay. We're grateful that these protections were not rolled back during session.
Banning Coal Tar Sealant
CBF continued to support a ban on the use of coal tar sealant, a black liquid that is sprayed or painted on asphalt pavement to protect the pavement. Coal tar sealants can contain high levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and mutations to aquatic life. Many cost-effective alternatives exist now. CBF urged the General Assembly to prohibit the sale and use of coal tar sealants to protect human and aquatic health.
Unfortunately, Delegate Kathy Tran’s House Bill 949—which, as introduced, would have banned the use of toxic coal tar driveway sealants—was defeated. We look forward to working on alternative legislation ahead of the 2023 session.
Assessing Virginia’s Oyster Stock
Virginia and its many partners have brought oyster harvests back from a low of 22,000 bushels in the early 2000s to 550,000 bushels in the last few years. This keystone species has an enormous economic value to the Commonwealth. Its environmental services—from filtering water in the Bay to providing habitat to other species—cannot be overstated. To ensure the continuation of the oyster’s recovery, the Commonwealth should develop and conduct a statewide oyster stock assessment plan, appropriating the funds that will allow the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to hire a staff assessment scientist to conduct this work. Neither chamber included funding for this position in its budgets, so we will try again next year.
Restoring Freshwater Mussels
A single freshwater mussel can filter up to 15 gallons of water per day, which in turn can prevent pollutants such as nitrogen from reaching downstream waters. Virginia has historically boasted an astonishing abundance of freshwater mussel species across all its freshwater streams, notably in streams in the southern part of the state. These critters help ensure cleaner water in our streams and, ultimately, the Bay. Unfortunately, mussel species are our most endangered class of organisms; in fact, some 70 percent of mussel species are now vulnerable to extinction.
The senate budget included sufficient funds for the Department of Wildlife Resources to develop a statewide restoration plan for these bivalves. We are grateful for Senator Creigh Deed’s budget amendment for this restoration work.
Reinvigorate the Virginia Office of Environmental Education
Environmental education combines many disciplines and builds teamwork as well as high-level thinking and problem-solving skills, helping the current generation of children to develop a more well-rounded skill set. Severe budget constraints several years ago eliminated staffing for the Virginia Office of Environmental Education, leaving no one at the state level to coordinate environmental education efforts.
Because funding for environmental education was included in both the house and senate budgets, we are cautiously optimistic that it will be in the final budget. The requested funding will assist local school districts and advance Virginia’s STEM efforts, helping to build a workforce ready to be successful in the high-paying and in-demand jobs of the future.
Defending Good Government
CBF and conservation partners worked hard to preserve the sound functioning of citizen boards during this year’s General Assembly. We have also worked on several bills that we didn’t anticipate seeing at the beginning of the session.
Senate Bill 657 (introduced by Senator Richard Stuart) removed authority to approve, modify or reject individual permits from the State Water Control Board and the Air Pollution Control Board. We are grateful that members from both parties worked with us on the senate bill to ensure the continued opportunity for transparency and public participation in matters that come before the boards. The bill passed with these changes.
House Bill 1261 (introduced by Delegate Robert Bloxom) would allow for shared appointment authority for the members of the air and water boards among the Governor, members of the house, and members of the senate. The final outcome for this bill remains unknown.