2020 Virginia Legislative Session


Chuck Epes

Legislators spur new progress in restoring Virginia waterways.

During the General Assembly April 22 veto session, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia’s General Assembly approved Governor Northam’s proposal to temporarily freeze new state spending, pending a later review once economic impacts became clearer. During a special session held this fall, legislators voted to continue substantial investments in cleaning up our rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. 

In an exciting 2020 General Assembly session, legislators renewed their commitment to implementing Virginia's final update to the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, a detailed plan to restore the Bay and its rivers and streams. Legislators also made important progress on other key Bay priorities, such as protecting menhaden, expanding oyster restoration, and banning oil and gas drilling off our coast

The advocacy and action of CBF members who wrote, called, and met with legislators helped make these successes possible. Your voices for clean water are leading to a better future in Virginia.

Historic Investments in Clean Water

In the 2021-2022 budget bill, legislators approved over $240 million to improve water quality across the Commonwealth.

  • $95.7 million over two years for the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share  (VACS) program,which offers technical and other assistance to help farmers adopt sound, cost-effective conservation practices. These funds will support farmers who fence cattle out of streams, implement nutrient management plans on cropland, and adopt a host of other conservation practices. Farmers across the state rely on VACS programs to implement these practices.
    To see how farmers implement these practices to improve water quality and farm productivity, view the video on our Virginia's Agricultural Cost-Share web page.
  • $50 million for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund  (SLAF) to help localities reduce polluted runoff from urban and suburban lands. SLAF provides matching grants for 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.
  • $50 million to upgrade wastewater treatment plants. Although many wastewater treatment plants have dramatically reduced the amount of pollution they send into rivers, this appropriation will provide grants to facilities that still need to upgrade, protecting ratepayers from having to absorb high costs.
  • $4 million each year for oyster replenishment and restoration as well as an additional $10 million to restore oyster reefs in four targeted tributaries. These reefs will help rebuild an industry that once supported thousands of jobs and added millions to our economy.
  • $25 million for the Alexandria CSO project to reduce sewage overflows during heavy rains.
  • $250,000 each year for environmental education to ensure Virginia's school children receive Meaningful Watershed Education Experiences.
  • Additional funding for Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to provide additional permitting oversight and regulatory enforcement.

Key Blueprint Policies

  • Protecting streams from livestock and managing fertilizer on agricultural lands. House Bill 1422 (Plum) and Senate Bill 704 (Mason) establish a process to accelerate progress on excluding cattle from permanent streams and implementing nutrient management plans on cropland of 50 acres or more by July 2026. These bills will significantly improve the health of local streams and reduce excess nutrients and sediment from reaching the Chesapeake Bay.

  • Reducing greenhouse gases: Senate  Bill 1027 (Lewis) and House Bill 981 (Herring), known jointly as the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, enable Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The Act specifies that 50 percent of proceeds from sales of carbon allowances will be used to address low-income energy efficiency programs and 45 percent to support climate change preparedness and mitigation activities.

    Joining RGGI will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants, an important step in responding to climate change and sea-level rise. Cutting down on these emissions will also reduce nitrogen pollution to the Bay and its rivers through air deposition.

Protecting Menhaden in the Bay

In 2019, Omega Protein announced it had caught more menhaden than allowed under the Chesapeake Bay harvest cap, which was adopted overwhelmingly by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. 

To avoid future violations, House Bill 1448 (Plum) and Senate Bill 791 (Lewis) transfer management of the menhaden fishery to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which manages every other saltwater fishery in Virginia. These bills ensure that management of the menhaden fishery will be based on sound science.

Stopping Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

Drilling for oil and gas off Virginia's coast would present an unjustifiable risk to our economy, military operations, and the health of our waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay. 

Senate Bill 795 (Lewis) and House Bill 706 (Keam) ban drilling in Virginia waters (three miles off Virginia’s coast), prohibit infrastructure to process oil and gas, and repeal outdated language in the Virginia Code that supports offshore drilling.

Cutting Down on Single-Use Plastics

In the closing days session, legislators passed Senate Bill 11 (Ebbin), which reconciled differences between the House and Senate versions of several plastic bag bills. SB 11 authorizes localities to adopt a nickel tax on single-use plastic bags. The locality must use the tax revenue for environmental cleanup, pollution and litter mitigation, educational programs designed to reduce waste and to provide reusable bags for SNAP and WIC recipients. This bill incorporates bills introduced by Senator Peterson (Senate Bill 26) and Delegates Carr (House Bill 534), Lopez (House Bill 1151) and Ware (House Bill 1673). CBF thanks these legislators for their efforts and encourages localities to adopt plastic bag ordinances as quickly as possible.

Protecting Tree Cover

CBF spoke in support of five bills that seek to preserve and expand tree canopy in Virginia, two of which ultimately passed. Trees play a major role in reducing polluted runoff, capturing carbon, and reducing erosion and flooding; planting more trees also results in cleaner air and a healthier community. 

  • House Bill 520 (Bulova) directs the Department of Environmental Quality to convene a stakeholder group to study the nutrient removal efficiency of both mature and newly planted trees. The result of that study may be useful in developing an additional stormwater best management practice. If developers have trees in their stormwater tool kit, they could choose planting trees over other options.
  • House Bill 504 (Hope) amends the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act statute by requiring consideration of "preservation of mature trees as a stormwater management tool and as a means of providing other benefits” as part of the development review process.
  • House Bill 1329 (Kory) strengthens localities' authority in Chesapeake Bay Preservation Areas to incorporate water quality protections into local plans and ordinances and impose civil penalties. This bill failed to pass the Senate and was continued to next year.
  • Senate Bill 184 (Locke) and House Bill 221 (Mugler), would have provided Hampton Roads localities the authority to conserve "flood mitigation trees.” The patrons indicated they intended to help tidal communities respond to sea-level rise and reduce tidal flooding. Both of these bills failed in subcommittee.

Environmental Justice

  • CBF supported the Environmental Justice Act (House Bill 704 (Keam) and Senate Bill 406 (Hashmi)), which defines “environmental justice” and states the Commonwealth’s policy to promote environmental justice in state agencies.
  • We also worked hard in support of Senate Bill 883 (Locke) and House Bill 1042 (Herring), which establish a permanent Virginia Council on Environmental Justice. The council will advise the governor and provide recommendations intended to protect vulnerable communities from the disproportionate impacts of pollution.

Additional Protections for Water Quality

  • House Bill 533 (Carr) bans polystyrene in food containers. This bill passed the House, but the Senate added an enactment clause, requiring the bill to be reintroduced next year.
  • CBF opposed House Bill 705 (Keam), which would have silenced citizen voices by shaking up the composition and limiting the responsibilities of our valued citizen boards—the State Water Control, State Air Pollution Control, and Solid Waste Management boards.

    We are pleased that the General Assembly took no definitive action on this bill, which was carried over to next year.
  • CBF supported Senate Bill 776, introduced by Senator Lewis. This bill would build upon previous legislation to make living shorelines the default option for shoreline management. Alternative methods, like shoreline hardening, would only be acceptable if a living shoreline is not feasible. The bill also makes consideration of sea-level rise part of the state's wetland permitting process and would direct the state to develop minimum standards that encourage the use of living shorelines for local wetlands boards to use, since many of these permitting decisions are made at the local level.
  • CBF participated in the stakeholder group for Senator Richard Stuart's SB1064, which establishes an aggressive but achievable timeline for Richmond to complete upgrades to the city's combined sewage system and sets out to eliminate these discharges during heavy rains by 2035. The General Assembly and the Governor would annually consider the cost and progress of this work in reports provided by the City of Richmond. These reports will help inform lawmakers of the additional state funding needed to undertake the work.

This session's significant progress toward improving the health of Virginia's waterways is a testament to the commitment of the Commonwealth's legislators and Governor Northam.

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