2023 Virginia Legislative Session

Chuck Epes

The 2025 Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint target is rapidly approaching, with much work remaining before the Chesapeake Bay is restored. While 2025 is an important moment in Bay restoration, it is not a finish line—Virginia, like all Bay jurisdictions and the federal government, must use the lessons learned to redouble its efforts to achieve the Blueprint targets as quickly as possible, and create a healthy, resilient watershed for all.

During the 2023 legislative session, we urged the Virginia General Assembly to accelerate efforts to reduce pollution, prioritizing the restoration of Virginia's rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay, so that future generations can enjoy their beauty and bounty.

Fully Fund Programs to Achieve Clean Water

We are pleased that Governor Youngkin's proposed budget included funding for key programs to reduce polluted runoff, and that both the House and Senate retained these investments in their respective budget bills:

  • $237 million to upgrade aging municipal sewage treatment plants. This funding provides cost-shared grants to help wastewater facilities reduce the nutrient and sediment pollution that causes dead zones in our rivers and the Bay, while protecting ratepayers from absorbing all the costs.
  • $137 million for the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share program, which amounts to full funding for the program, including technical expertise, and operational support to farmers who adopt sound, cost-effective conservation practices.
  • $100 million to assist the City of Richmond in upgrading its outdated combined sewer system. During heavy rains, the existing sewer infrastructure cannot adequately handle the volume of water, forcing discharges of raw sewage into the James River.

We are grateful to the Governor and legislators for proposing to provide the ample, needed funding for these programs. We look forward to final passage of the Commonwealth's budget bill that will make these appropriations definite.

Getting Cost-Effective Conservation Practices on the Ground Faster

Both Senator Hanger and Delegate Bulova introduced budget amendments to establish a pilot program to incentivize the adoption of highly cost-effective conservation practices: forested buffers, stream exclusion, and nutrient management plans.

Concurrently, two bills were proposed to extend to 2030 the existing July 1, 2026 deadline, by when farmers with 20 or more cows must exclude their herds from perennial streams and farms of at least 50 acres of cropland must adopt an approved nutrient management plan. CBF contended that extending the deadline for these priority practices would hamper achievement of Virginia's Bay goals. After lengthy negotiations, the stakeholders reached a compromise on SB 1129 and HB 1485, approved by legislators, which moves the deadline to 2028 and requires annual reporting of progress, such as the number of stream miles from which livestock have been excluded. The bills were signed into law by the Governor.

The approved Senate budget, acknowledging the need to accelerate nutrient reductions from the agricultural sector while recognizing the challenges faced by the farm community due to COVID and supply chain issues, wisely included $12.9 million for a grant program to help farmers meet this deadline and incentivize the most cost-effective long-term practices.

To further accelerate reductions from agriculture, CBF supported budget amendments which would create a workgroup to develop and implement new programs to speed up nutrient reductions through verified outcomes. The goal of the workgroup would be to consider “pay for performance” options for funding agricultural practices that result in the highest pollution reductions at the lowest cost. This budget amendment was not adopted in either the Senate or House budget bills (SB 800 and HB 1400 respectively).

Support Cleaner Vehicle Emissions

CBF urged legislators to support the implementation of a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program by the State Air Pollution Control Board. As of 2020, automobiles account for approximately 100 million pounds of nitrogen pollution deposited to the Bay watershed each year. By supporting more efficient vehicles, we can improve air quality, reduce pollution to the Bay, and decrease carbon emissions. All bills to repeal the Clean Car standards failed to pass this session.

Enhance Climate Resilience while Protecting Water Quality

In the last several years, Virginia has taken a number of steps to enhance its resiliency in the face of more severe weather and a changing climate.

Multiple bills attempted to pull Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market-based program to cap and reduce carbon emissions from power generators. Forty-five percent of the proceeds from this program go to the Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF), which provides grants to localities across the state—from Winchester to Hampton, Danville to Fairfax—to build desperately-needed resilience against coastal and inland flooding. Remaining in RGGI will continue to bring millions of dollars to Virginia to help communities threatened by intense storms and rising seas. The Senate defeated all the RGGI repeal bills during this year's session.

In addition, CBF supported Delegate Bulova’s HB 1634 and Senator Lewis’ SB 1187, which encourages localities to consider resilience strategies during the development of new comprehensive plans. These bills passed both chambers and were signed into law by the Governor.

Tackling Stubborn Stormwater

As land use changes continue, nutrient reductions from the stormwater sector are increasingly difficult and expensive to achieve. The House proposes an additional $10 million, and the Senate seeks an additional $20 million, for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF) which provides grants to localities for projects that reduce polluted runoff. These amounts will be negotiated in conference and would be in addition to the $25 million appropriated for SLAF in 2022.

Support Oyster Shell Recycling

Senator Monty Mason and Delegate Tim Anderson introduced legislation (SB 997 and HB 1438) to create an oyster shell tax credit to encourage businesses and others to recycle oyster shells for restoration purposes. The Senate Finance committee offered substitute language, converting the proposed recycling tax credit to an Oyster Shell Waste Division Fund grant program to incentivize keeping shells out of landfills. This grant fund will provide between $100,000 and up to $250,000 for oyster shell recycling efforts.

Help Create a Fishery for Blue Catfish

CBF supported Delegate Hodges' HB 1664 and Senator Stuart’s SB 897 to create an Infrastructure Grant Program to help process and flash freeze blue catfish. Creating a fishery for this invasive species could help curb its populations in the Rappahannock, James and York rivers. These bills passed both chambers and the House and Senate both proposed $2 million to capitalize this fund. The bills were signed into law by the Governor.

Improve Our Knowledge of Menhaden

Senator Lynwood Lewis’ SB 1388, as introduced, directed the state to study the ecology, fishery impacts, and economic importance of menhaden populations. This bill was amended to task the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences with developing a plan for the study. The bill was passed by both chambers and signed into law by the Governor. Other bills that sought to impose additional restrictions on menhaden harvests were defeated.

Reducing Toxins in Our Waterways

CBF supported HB 2209, introduced by Delegate Kathy Tran, which would allow localities to ban pavement sealants that contain Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), a carcinogen. Coal tar sealants contain 1,000 times more PAHs than similar asphalt-based products, and there are alternative sealants that are less toxic and no more expensive. Unfortunately, this bill was defeated in a vote on the House floor.

Protecting Forests and Wetlands

The Senate’s budget includes $500,000 for the Virginia Department of Forestry to conduct a technical study of changes in forests and tree canopy as well as a study on oak wilt. This study will help Virginia and its localities protect and enhance forests and tree canopy, which are essential for healthy streams and the Chesapeake Bay. The House budget provides funding for a new staff policy analyst to help address the agency workload.

Bills that would have exempted some instances of forest harvesting from stormwater management controls (SB 844 and HB 2282) failed to pass following outcry from CBF, other conservation groups, and localities. 

CBF also opposed SB 1152 which sought to exempt the military from having to obtain wetlands permits. CBF worked with the bill's patron to find a solution that would ensure that the work of the military and federal agencies will be adequately reviewed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The Bay Needs You

The State of the Bay Report makes it clear that the Bay needs our support now more than ever. Your donation helps the Chesapeake Bay Foundation maintain our momentum toward a restored Bay, rivers, and streams for today and generations to come.

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