Virginia Wraps Up Remarkable Session for Clean Water
Legislators wrapped up an exciting legislative session in March that ranks among Virginia’s strongest for clean water. Policy proposals defeated in previous years finally passed, while legislators also adopted many important new initiatives on environmental and water-quality issues.
One of the biggest victories revolved around a small fish—the menhaden. Legislators voted to transfer management of Virginia’s menhaden fisheries from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which manages every other saltwater fishery in the Commonwealth. This comes after almost two decades of advocacy by CBF, our members, partners, and other stakeholders, including anglers.
In a major step toward combatting climate change, the General Assembly authorized Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and- trade program for power plants that will reduce emissions. Forty-five percent of the funds generated will go to the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. In reducing pollution from air emissions, the program will also decrease pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, and funding from the program will help Virginia prepare for sea-level rise and extreme weather.
Legislation passed this session will accelerate efforts by farmers to fence cattle out of streams and implement nutrient management plans to reduce fertilizer runoff from cropland. These are among the most cost-effective ways to reduce pollution to waterways.
Legislators also voted to prohibit oil and gas drilling and related infrastructure in Virginia waters up to three miles off the coast just as the Trump administration has proposed opening the Atlantic Coast to risky drilling. The General Assembly also established milestones and a 2035 deadline for Richmond to eliminate sewage overflows into the James River.
In March, legislators also approved and sent to the governor for his signature a two-year state budget that included an unprecedented level of investment in the Bay and its rivers and streams, showing clean water remains a priority for Virginians.
The lawmakers proposed record investments in both oyster restoration and reducing polluted runoff from developed areas. The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which provides matching grants to localities to reduce stormwater pollution, would receive an additional $50 million over the two-year period—up from $10 million the previous year.
Oyster restoration and replenishment efforts in Virginia would receive $8 million over the two-year period, plus $10 million in innovative bond financing to construct sanctuary reefs. This investment would boost sanctuary oyster reef construction and support goals to fully restore 10 Bay tributaries for oyster habitat. Last year legislators appropriated $4 million for replenishment and restoration.
Virginia legislators also renewed financial support at $50 million for sewage treatment plant upgrades, an effort that leads to dramatic improvements in reducing pollution to rivers.
Investments in Virginia’s agricultural cost-share program were approved at $95.7 million over the next two years. Many of the practices supported by the program also address climate change and trap carbon through trees, grasses, and healthier soil.
Unfortunately, one of the many casualties of COVID-19 has been the budget, which could will be significantly affected. Governor Northam has proposed several related budget amendments and measures given the anticipated economic downturn.
This session’s progress is a testament to the commitment of Virginia legislators and Governor Northam. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the advocacy and action of the many CBF members who wrote, called, and met with legislators. Your voices for clean water will lead to a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Virginia Executive Director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation