The Rappahannock River. Photo credit: Va. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation
by Dick Hall-Sizemore
There are some issues that seem to be baked into public policy and, because they affect sensitive and important areas, tend to lead to controversies periodically.
Many years ago, one of the hottest controversies was the “inter-basin transfer of water.” Because Virginia is a “riparian rights” state, folks who live next to rivers can withdraw water from the river, but are not supposed to divert it to use by other people who do not live on the river. To do so would diminish the water available for those other riparian landowners. The Virginia Supreme Court in the 1942 case of Town of Purcellville v. Potts declared a per se prohibition against inter-basin transfer:
While a riparian owner is entitled to a reasonable use of the water, he has no right to divert it for use beyond his riparian land, and any such diversion and use is an infringement on the rights of the lower riparian proprietors who are thereby deprived of the flow. Such a diversion is an extraordinary and not a reasonable use.
The field of water law is a very complex one and that is as far as I am willing to dip my toe into it. Suffice it to say that inter-basin transfer of water is an important concept. For a more in-depth discussion, see here. Continue reading
The central Great Neck Corridor drainage system Virginia Beach
by James C. Sherlock
Sometimes things work. Perhaps they will this time.
There was a time in Virginia Beach when a partnership between a developer and a church to build new houses would have breezed through the Planning Commission and the City Council.
That kind of open season on clearing and building on Virginia Beach’s very low-lying land brought with it lots of problems, including flooding.
The citizens of Virginia Beach, tired of flooding in every heavy rain and even under a clear sky with a full moon, a couple of years ago passed a very large property tax increase on themselves to create a huge pot of money to deal with it.
One of the natural flood control systems already in place is a series of contiguous lakes along Great Neck Road in the eastern part of the city. They handle runoff from that major corridor. That system flows into the Lynnhaven River and the Chesapeake Bay.
To that place comes a developer and a local church with a proposal. Continue reading
by Joe Fitzgerald
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The Hopewell chemical plant where Kepone was born and raised has been cited 66 times over the past eight years for releasing toxic chemicals into the air and into the James River.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch tells the story better than I do. What makes this latest stream of toxins so poignant is the release this week of the book Poison Powder: The Kepone Disaster in Virginia and its Legacy, by University of Akron history professor Gregory Wilson. (From the University of Georgia Press, or from Amazon.)
Wilson’s work is an excellent history that brings alive what so many of us remember from back then. People we knew, including my brother Tom, worked and suffered at the Kepone plant in Hopewell in the mid-1970s. The James River, the cradle of American settlement, was closed to fishing. People who couldn’t spell “ppm” could tell you how many parts per million of Kepone were in their blood.
Tom died last summer, age 67, of what some medical sites call a rare type of kidney tumor that had also attached itself to his stomach and bowel and maybe a couple of organs I’ve forgotten. Kepone? Nobody will ever know for sure. But Wilson’s book makes sure everybody who wants to will know what happened in Hopewell almost 50 years ago.
Courtesy Petersburg Virginia website
by James C. Sherlock
While all of the attention in the state press has been on Petersburg’s proposed casino, the estimable Bill Atkinson of the Petersburg Progress-Index provided insight into other Petersburg requests to the General Assembly for budget amendments.
Badly needed infrastructure projects and a tourism initiative are each tied to the health of both the Appomattox River and the citizens of Petersburg. Continue reading
Posted in Business and Economy, Children and families, Economic development, Environment, General Assembly, Infrastructure, Leadership, Manufacturing, Poverty & income gap, Public safety & health, Water-waste water
Tagged James Sherlock
by Jon Baliles
This week, Jeremy Lazarus of the Richmond Free Press attended the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee and found that “more than 6,300 homes and businesses in Richmond — 10% of the customer base — are facing disconnection of their utilities for nonpayment of water, sewer and gas bills.”
Yikes. That is essentially double the rate from five years go, and there is more than $35 million that is 90 days or more in arrears.
When the pandemic hit, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) did what most cities across America did, suspending disconnections and ending late fees, etc. and announced they would eat the losses until November 2021, when those normal practices continued. By summer 2021, uncollected bills more than 90 days behind had climbed from about $9 million to $28 million. Continue reading
M. Norman Oliver M.D., Virginia Health Commissioner
by Dick Hall-Sizemore
The Northam administration has just had an embarrassing case of managerial incompetence exposed.
A series of articles by the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Patrick Wilson (here, here, and here) sets out the story of the Department of Health laying off 14 state employees who monitor drinking water systems across the state, including six field directors with a combined 180 years of experience, due to “budget error.” This office monitors water quality across the state, enforces state and federal drinking water standards, handles inspections and permits, and assists with lab testing.
The sad tale has its beginning in 2019, when the Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, being advised by agency administrators that it had the funding to do so, provided salary increases to 55 employees in the office and opened a field office in Richmond with four people. It turned out that advice was wrong, with a resulting shortfall projected to be $1.4 million this fiscal year. So, now, almost halfway through fiscal year 2022, the agency, facing a budget shortfall in that budget line item, tells these 14 people they are going to be laid off, effective January 9. Continue reading
Data source: LawnStart
The City of Richmond has the best water system among the seven Virginia cities included in a LawnStarter ranking of 2021’s Best Cities for Water Quality. The City of Chesapeake had the worst.
LawnStarter, an online marketplace for lawn-care and landscaping services, ranked the 200 most populated U.S. cities based on metrics of consumer satisfaction with drinking water, environmental violations, regulatory compliance for plumbing and sewage, and infrastructure vulnerability. Continue reading
Amounts various Virginia utilities are owed by customers as of June 30, four months after the State Corporation Commission prohibited utility disconnections. Source: SCC
By Steve Haner
During the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginians piled up $184 million or more in unpaid bills with several Virginia utilities, and that was before the worst of the heat arrived in July.
The figure comes from a short letter from the State Corporation Commission to General Assembly leaders dated today, listing the totals in arrears as of June 30. The SCC issued an order in March, renewed in June, which prohibited the disconnection of regulated utility customers for unpaid bills during the recession. The order was extended after legislators claimed they would be addressing the problem at the August special session.
The SCC’s order suspending disconnections expires on August 31. That legislative session is now just four days away and no suggestions for a solution have surfaced publicly. No bill on the topic is filed. This issue is not mentioned in a story in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch listing some of the budget actions Governor Ralph Northam will propose next week. Continue reading
The SWIFT research center. Photo credit: Philip Shucet
by James A. Bacon
Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to dealing with increasingly stringent clean water regulations. One is to make incremental upgrades with the idea of deferring expensive capital outlays as long as possible, which is what most local governments do. The other is to go big and go bold — the option pursued by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) in its $1.2 billion Sustainable Water Initiative For Tomorrow (SWIFT) project.
As a regional sanitation district serving a population of 1.7 million, the HRSD has the size and resources to undertake projects of a magnitude that smaller municipal systems could only dream about. Under regulatory pressure to reduce algae bloom-causing nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater released into the Chesapeake Bay, HRSD is implementing an ambitious scheme to treat the water and then pump it back into the Potomac aquifer. The hoped-for result is to slow the rate of land subsidence that contributes to increased flooding in the region.
HRSD’s ambitions are on display at a $25 million research center in Suffolk near the Monitor-Merrimac bridge tunnel. There, researchers are tweaking the process for cleaning about one million gallons daily — not only removing phosphorous, bacteria and viruses but breaking down organic chemicals found in medications tossed into sinks and toilets — to drinking water quality. By 2030, HRSD will apply the technology in five full-scale facilities capable of treating around 100 million gallons daily. Continue reading
Now, we’re told, we have a new reason to fear climate change: Record rainfalls are straining the capacity of combined-sewer overflow (CSO) systems in Richmond, Lynchburg and Alexandria. In heavy rains, the antiquated systems, which combine stormwater runoff and wastewater, release untreated wastewater into the river.
“We’re on the frontlines dealing with climate change,” Grace LeRose, program manager for the Richmond public utilities, told The Virginia Mercury. “We’re seeing bigger and more frequent storms that are going to tax our system even more.”
In May and June the city experienced 23 inches of rain, the highest ever recorded. That year, contends the Virginia Mercury, was indicative of a longer-term trend. There was a 33% increase in the number of heavy rainstorms in Virginia, and an 11% increase from the largest storms between 1948 and 2011.
Of course, you can make statistics say anything you want them to, so I thought I’d do some checking. Continue reading
Two disturbing facts were brought to light last week. First, a survey of two agriculture-intense Virginia counties found that the effort to reduce agricultural pollution by fencing off farm streams from cattle is far behind schedule. Second, our supposedly progressive governor put forth a very watered down Watershed Improvement Plan that effectively eliminates the livestock fencing goals in the Commonwealth. Northam Administration vs The Chesapeake Bay.
Cows do more than fart and burp. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, raised more than a few eyebrows when her New Green Deal included measures to curb the greenhouse gas effects of farting and burping cows. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez whimsically referenced the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide as digestive byproducts from many farm animals, especially cattle. While these emissions are a legitimate issue, a bovine prescription for Gas-X and Rolaids would not solve the problem. The production of meat in general, and beef in particular, has a sizable negative impact on the environment. Every step in raising, slaughtering, packaging and shipping meat adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Across the globe animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (14-18%) than transportation (13.5%). However, the environmental impact of animal agriculture doesn’t end with greenhouse gas emissions. A 1400-pound Holstein steer produces 115 pounds of manure per day or about 21 tons per year. Some of this prodigious amount of manure finds its way from cows and steers to farm creeks and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. The manure contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which cause excess algae growth de-oxygenating the bay’s water. Many consider animal waste the biggest problem confronting the Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading
Map source: “Toxic Floodwaters”
If the threat of leaking coal ash pits kept you up at night, wait until you read, “Toxic Floodwaters: The Threat of Climate-Driven Chemical Disaster in Virginia’s James River Watershed,” a report just published by the Center for Progressive Reform.
Authors Noah Sachs (a University of Richmond professor and a friend of mine) and David Flores argue that the James River watershed “is among the regions of the country most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change” due to higher-than-average sea-level rise, intensifying rainfall, and increased hurricane risk. “As major storms cause serious and potentially toxic flooding in the James River watershed … residents are reminded that the industries surrounding them are not doing enough to plan and adapt to our changing world.”
Also, as we have come to expect from the modern environmental movement, there is a social justice component to the report. “Social vulnerability interacts with geography and climate to produce a climate crisis,” the authors write.
The study raises some legitimate questions, but I can’t find any evidence to buttress its strongest assertions. I’ll get to those reservations in a moment. But first, let’s see what the report says. Continue reading
School daze. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation(CBF) recently issued it biannual State of the Bay Report. The report can be found here. The CBF assigns both a numeric and letter grade to the bay. This report (2017 – 2018) garners a score of 33 for a grade of D+. The last report (2015 – 2016) tallied a 34 / C-. The grading scale is as follows
40 or below – dangerously out of balance
41 – 50 – improving
51 – 70 – stable
71+ – saved
The first State of the Bay Report was issued in 1998 and Bhe bay received a “grade” of 27. Progress was slow but steady through 2016. The recently issued report (2018) represents a rare regression in overall score since the report was started.
Rain, rain, go away. An extremely wet 2018 is primarily to blame for the regression in the bay’s health. And wet it was. DC’s official recording site at Reagan National Airport ended up with 66.28″ of rain, which broke the previous record of 61.33″ from 1889. This total is over 2 feet above DC’s annual average of 39.74″, and is nearly as much rain as the previous 2 years combined of 67.3″ (2016 + 2017). Baltimore’s BWI Airport recorded 71.82″ of rain against an annual average of 43.62″. That was the wettest year on record and the weather book dates back to 1871. The runoff from all that rain caused significant regressions in nitrogen (-5), phosphorus (-9) and water clarity (-4) from the prior report. One ray of sunshine in the report was the fact that underwater grasses notched a small gain from 2015-2016 despite the deluges. Continue reading
Stinking to high heaven. The City of Alexandria spews an astonishing 11 million gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River every year. The overflows happen just about every time it rains. This is the result of a combined sewer system that is designed to collect sewage and runoff in a single system. When it rains, the runoff spikes and Alexandria’s treatment plant can’t handle the volume. The excess of mixed runoff and sewage is intentionally overflowed into the Potomac River in four separate dumping locations. This has been happening for 100 years.
Raising procrastination to an art form. Many U.S. cities have combined sewer overflow (CSO) problems. The environmental damage is well understood and the approach to solving the problem is well understood. You basically build a great big underground holding tank to catch the excess sewage and runoff until the treatment plant can catch up to demand. Washington, D.C., Richmond and Lynchburg join Alexandria in needing to deal with their CSO problem. The difference between Alexandria and the other three cities is that the other cities are well along in solving the problem while the well-heeled progressives in Alexandria were content to spew human waste into the Chesapeake Bay watershed without any more than a pretense of a plan to remedy the situation. However, in a stunning stroke of clarity, the Virginia General Assembly changed all that. They boxed Alexandria’s ears leaving the snowflakes in that city’s government with an epic case of tinnitus.
Our glorious General Assembly. During the 2017 session the Virginia General Assembly essentially told Alexandria that “enough was enough.” The legislature passed bills setting a fast-paced schedule for Alexandria to fix its disgusting sewer system. The city has eight years to attend to a problem that should have been addressed a decade ago. The Mayor and City Council members of Alexandria cried like babies after being told they needed to stop dumping raw sewage into the river. Alexandria has a median household income of $89,200 and can afford an “Office for Women” along with hybrid buses that cost $750,000 apiece (twice the cost of a normal diesel bus and they idle all the time anyway). However, they can’t fund a fix to dumping raw sewage?
Odd bedfellows. The Alexandria sewage affair made for some odd bedfellows. Progressive Democratic state Senator Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, launched a Twitter offensive against his lefty pals in Alexandria over the matter. Of course Surovell represents the district immediately downriver from Alexandria! Conservative Republican state senator Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, patroned the initial legislation, which was much more draconian than what was ultimately passed. Stuart also represents a district downriver from Alexandria. Support for the bill in both the House and Senate came primarily from Republicans while opposition was primarily from Democrats. Governor McAuliffe tried to elongate Alexandria’s schedule but was rebuffed by the General Assembly and ultimately signed the strict bill.
Update. After insisting that the city needed five years to study the matter Alexandria’s plan was written and approved within a year. After insisting that the eight-year schedule was an engineering impossibility the city now says the schedule is doable. Funny what happens when liberals are forced to do the things they insist everybody else must do.
Warning. Before any of you wizards in the peanut gallery start carping about my anti-liberal bias … remember this post. I am anti-two-faced politicians who espouse a political philosophy like property rights or environmentalism but then backtrack on their supposed beliefs when it comes time to act.
Hero award: Scott Surovell.
— Don Rippert
Carpetbagger. Bob Goodlatte is the 13-term congressman from Virginia’s 6th Congressional District who has blessedly chosen to retire this year. In my opinion he represents just about everything that is wrong with the GOP. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts and educated at Bates College in Maine, Goodlatte somehow avoids the “carpetbagger” moniker so quickly put on Terry McAuliffe by Virginia’s Republicans. He won his congressional seat at age 39 and has spent the last 26 years in Congress. Yet he goes uncriticized as a “politician for life” by the conservative Newt Gingrich types who claim to eschew such long running elected officials. He is a polluter’s best friend with apparently no concern for the property rights of those negatively affected by the pollution he justifies and defends. However, he’ll be gone soon and you’d think we’re past the damage done by this phony conservative. Oh no. Even in his final days in office Goodlatte is actively denying people protection of their property rights despite “property rights” supposedly being a core tenet of conservative Republican dogma. What a farce.
Blowing up the blueprint. The Chesapeake Bay represents not only a national treasure but a working laboratory for the protection of property rights. Certainly right thinking conservatives must believe that allowing a small minority of people and corporations to pollute a public waterway unfairly takes away the property rights of non-polluters. In the case of a waterway that borders multiple states, one would think that sensible and honest conservatives would insist that the federal government protect the property rights of all the states. Isn’t this both a core tenet of conservatism and a reasonable construct of property rights? Not according to Bob Goodlatte.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed states have claimed to be working together to clean up the Bay for the past forty years. For 31 of those years the effort failed as various states simply ignored their clean up commitments. Then, in 2009, the EPA was authorized to provide scientific leadership and oversight for a new clean-up plan — the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint. Progress has been substantial since that time. Despite Virginia being a major beneficiary of the blueprint, one of our own Congressmen has put forth an amendment to curtail the EPA’s role in this effort. You guessed it, ole Bob Goodlatte sponsored an amendment to H.R. 6147 forbidding the EPA from spending money to provide firm, science-based accountability over the blueprint. As a press release from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation puts it, “Congressman Goodlatte’s amendment would keep EPA from using any funds to provide this “firm accountability” if a state fails to meet its pollution-reduction goals set under the Blueprint.” So much for preservation of property rights from this so-called conservative.
Hall of shame. Bob Goodlatte’s amendment for the protection of raw sewage in public waters passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 213 to 202. Seven of Virginia’s Representatives (Wittman, Taylor, Scott, McEachin, Beyer, Comstock and Connolly) repudiated Sideshow Bob and his amendment by voting against it. However, four of our so-called representatives (Garrett, Goodlatte, Brat and Griffith) couldn’t find the mental acuity to understand how a clean Chesapeake Bay might help the Commonwealth of Virginia. While it’s no excuse for their buffoonery Garrett, Goodlatte and Griffith have districts far from the Bay. Brat, by comparison, has a district bordering the city of Richmond. What are the voters in the 7th district thinking? Will “Kepone Dave” get re-elected? Here’s a good article about the cleanliness of the James River in Richmond (warning: true but disgusting content)
Going forward. The congressional seat being vacated by Bob Goodlatte’s retirement will be contested by Ben Cline (R) and Jennifer Lewis (D). Cline is a member of the General Assembly and long time Goodlatte toady. Lewis is a bleeding heart liberal with minimal political experience. So far, Lewis has raised $72,000 to Cline’s $787,000. The Cook Partisan Voter Index for the district is R+13. Sadly, Cline will almost certainly win and continue the anti-conservative, anti-Virginia activities of his predecessor.
— Don Rippert