Virginia's Blueprint for Clean Water

VA Shenandoah River BradleyStriebig 1171x593

Forested buffers, like those that line the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, are one of the most effective practices for protecting water quality and improving resilience to weather extremes.

Bradley Striebig/Yovo Photo

Is Virginia on track to meet its 2025 pollution-reduction commitments?

Virginia remains on track to achieve its 2025 pollution-reduction commitments, largely due to wastewater treatment plants, which account for over 90 percent of its nitrogen and phosphorus reductions since the Blueprint’s establishment. This progress currently keeps Virginia on track overall, even though the Commonwealth is not meeting commitments to reduce polluted runoff from agriculture and urban and suburban areas. Long term, this is not sustainable, especially when pollution from stormwater continues to grow. To meet its 2025 commitments, Virginia must rapidly accelerate pollution reductions from these sources. Recent increased investments are a promising step, but these funding levels must be maintained and targeted to the most beneficial pollution-reduction practices, such as planting streamside forest buffers.

Virginia’s Progress Toward Pollution Reductions

We used the Chesapeake Bay Program’s scientific model to estimate pollution reductions made between 2009 and 2021 and if those reductions are on a trajectory to meet the 2025 commitments. Virginia’s pollution-reduction progress is summarized in the table below.

Individual sectors compared to 2025 Phase III WIP. Total compared to EPA Planning Target.
Nitrogen Phosphorus
Agriculture Off Track Off Track
Urban/Suburban Polluted Runoff Off Track and Pollution Increasing Off Track
Septic Off Track N/A
Wastewater & Combined Sewer Outfall On Track On Track
Overall On Track On Track


Off Track Projected loads more than 25% off target or pollution is increasing
In Danger of Being Off Track Projected loads within 10-25% of target
On Track Projected loads less than 10% off target
N/A No contribution from this source sector

Any increasing trendline is red, regardless of percentage

Pollution-reduction progress is assessed with modeled estimates of the benefits from implemented practices such as upgrades to wastewater treatment plants; best management practices, like cover crops and streamside forested buffers, on agricultural lands; and stormwater practices, like rain gardens, in urban areas. The “Total” progress for each state is assessed against the overall pollution-reduction commitment EPA assigned each state in order to meet the Blueprint commitments by 2025. Each state is responsible for dividing EPA’s total allotment among the various pollution sources (sectors) in their state Clean Water Blueprints (Watershed Implementation Plans, or WIPs). The progress for each sector (i.e. agriculture) is therefore assessed against the pollution-reduction target based on the states’ most recent Phase III WIPs.

Evaluating Virginia's Milestone Commitments

After examining the results of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s scientific model to estimate pollution reductions statewide and for each sector (see chart above), we evaluated Virginia’s implementation of the programmatic commitments it made in its 2021 and 2022 milestones—in other words, the practices and policies the Commonwealth will use to get the job done. The following is our analysis of key Virginia commitments.


Graphic of building with smokestacks and raindrop inside a brown box.Virginia continued robust efforts to address wastewater pollution—which accounts for the vast majority of its overall progress to date—by passing the Enhanced Nutrient Removal Certainty Act (ENRC), proposing new regulations to prevent harmful algal blooms in the James River, and investing in wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

Commitment: Reissue key nutrient and chlorophyll-based wastewater permits.

Progress: ON TRACK

Steps taken: Virginia passed legislation requiring additional pollution reductions from wastewater plants and dedicated more than $70 million in investments to help achieve those reductions. It also reissued permits for wastewater treatment plants that require the plants to reduce pollution to levels that will help protect rivers and streams from harmful algal blooms.

Steps needed: The Commonwealth must continue funding to complete the remaining wastewater facility upgrades required by the new ENRC law.

Urban/Suburban Polluted Runoff

Graphic of rain falling on skyscrapers and houses.Recent investments in the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund (SLAF), a program that helps municipalities pay for practices that reduce polluted runoff, have had an important impact. However, increasing pollution from developed areas continues to offset reductions in other sectors. Failure to reissue stormwater pollution-reduction permits are a critical factor preventing progress.

Commitment: Reissuance of MS4 Phase I and Phase II (General) Permits

Progress: Off Track

Steps taken: Virginia reissued an updated permit for Arlington’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4), which governs how the city must reduce polluted runoff from urban and suburban areas that washes into waterways when it rains.

Steps needed: Virginia is behind schedule for reissuing MS4 permits, which it committed to do in its very first plan to meet the Blueprint commitments (Phase I WIP, 2010). This delay resulted in several permits being “administratively continued”—in other words, extended beyond their expiration date with no updates requiring additional pollution reductions. The Commonwealth must reissue the remaining MS4 Permits, continue investments in SLAF to help municipalities reduce polluted runoff, and strengthen stormwater regulations to accelerate pollution reductions.


Graphic of barn, silo, and cow.Agriculture represents nearly 90 percent of the remaining pollution reductions Virginia must make to meet its Blueprint commitments. The state is currently not on track and must accelerate progress to reduce pollution from farms to sustain water quality over the long term. Recent, unprecedented investments in the Commonwealth’s Agricultural Cost-Share Program are a major, positive step.

Commitment: Direct increased cost-share funding to Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program.

Progress: On Track

Steps taken: Virginia appropriated unprecedented levels of funding in the state budget for the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share program, which helps farmers reduce pollution. For the first time, the funding will approach the annual level of expected need—a notable accomplishment.

Steps needed: The Commonwealth must sustain funding at levels needed to achieve the Blueprint commitments. These funds need to be focused on the most cost-effective efforts by targeting locations and conservation practices that will yield the greatest long-term benefits for water quality, such as planting forested buffers along streams.

Commitment: Improved incentives for Forested Riparian Buffers

Progress: In Danger of Being Off Track

Steps taken: Forested buffers are one of the most effective practices for protecting water quality, improving resilience to weather extremes, mitigating climate change, and enhancing wildlife populations. Increases to the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share (VACS) program should help accelerate the planting of buffers on farms. In addition, Virginia has increased cost-share payments and provided one-time incentive payments to farmers who plant buffers.

Steps needed: Progress to plant forested buffers remains significantly behind—to date the Commonwealth has achieved less than 10 percent of its commitment. Additional policy initiatives to accelerate forested buffer plantings are needed.

Finishing the Job in Virginia

Virginia remains on track to meet its 2025 commitments overall due mostly to its significant progress reducing pollution from wastewater. This is not sustainable over the long term without greatly accelerating pollution reductions from agriculture and urban and suburban areas, which are currently off track. Virginia’s strength is the tremendous investments it has made in clean water in recent years. Landmark legislation to accelerate efforts to keep livestock out of streams, manage fertilizers and manure, and upgrade wastewater treatment plants should also galvanize clean-up efforts in the coming years.

However, failure to reissue critical permits for stormwater systems, lagging plantings of streamside forest buffers, and significant rates of forest clearing hamper progress. For example, satellite imagery data show that Virginia cleared over 30,000 acres of forest in a span of four years. While some of this clearing may be temporary due to timber harvest, extensive clearing of forest negatively impacts water quality and habitat and can offset work done to reduce pollution.

Virginia’s work is not done. Sustained investments in agricultural cost-share, local assistance for stormwater projects, and wastewater technology upgrades must continue. Virginia must also promptly reissue municipal stormwater permits, accelerate streamside forest buffer plantings, and take advantage of all cost-effective pollution reductions from wastewater. Doing so is essential to achieve the clean water Virginians depend on, both in 2025 and over the long term.

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