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 →
Northam Administration vs The Chesapeake Bay. 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.
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 →
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.
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.
Nasty! Oronoco Bay in eco-city Alexandria. Image credit: Greater Greater Washington.
The City of Alexandria bills itself as an “eco-city.” In 2007, it published a “green-ventory” of environmental plans, policies and programs. In 2008, the city adopted an “eco-charter.” Since then, the city has launched initiatives to tackle invasive plants, expand the regional BikeShare program, bolster transit bus service, weatherize apartments of low-income Alexandrians, design LEED-certified city buildings, install energy-efficient lighting fixtures, and replace diesel buses with hybrid-electric buses — all trendy, green priorities.
Meanwhile, the city’s aging combined sewer overflow system dumps an estimated 70 million gallons of raw sewage, waste and rainwater into the Potomac River every time it rains. The city has had years to fix the problem, which it estimates will require $386 million in local funds. Until yesterday, the plan was to pay for the sum through a gradual 500% increase in city sewer fees over the next ten years.
Now city officials are “reeling,” reports the Alexandria Times, after Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill that will compel the city to accelerate its timetable for fixing the problem by two years to 2025.
“We appreciate the governor’s earlier efforts to substitute a more reasonable deadline, and we remain fully committed to getting all four outfalls in Alexandria done, and to getting them done right,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg in response to the news. “While we are moving full steam ahead, we are very concerned that this legislation requires a deadline engineers have indicated is not feasible.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If Alexandria really wants to consider itself an “eco-city,” its first priority should be to stop dumping human excrement into the Potomac River. Which would have a greater positive impact? Investing in save-the-world efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, which, might reduce global warming by a hundred-thousandth of a degree over the next 100 years, or stop fouling the river? I’ll hazard a guess that people living downstream would prefer the latter.
Until Alexandria gets its act together and stops polluting the Potomac, maybe it could do the rest of us a favor and spare us the “eco-city” blather.
HB 1774 was written to address rural stormwater issues and amended to study stormwater management practices in rural Virginia highway ditches. Why, then, does the bill direct the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency, a group formed to help Virginia adapt to recurrent flooding and sea-level rise, to direct the study?
The Commonwealth Center was created in 2016 to study strategies for adaptation, migration, and the prevention of recurrent flooding — deemed to be caused by global warming-induced sea-level rise — in Tidewater and Eastern Shore localities. As the adage goes, to a carpenter with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Assigning the study to the Commonwealth Center almost guarantees that HB 1774’s stormwater concerns will be viewed through the prism of sea-level rise and recurrent flooding. And that would be counterproductive because state road and ditch flooding have no connection to sea-level rise at all.
This misdirected idea comes from Lewis “Lewie” Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission (MPPDC) and the behind-the-scenes force behind HB 1774. Lawrence has doggedly insisted that Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) drainage failures in rural counties bordering the Chesapeake Bay, like my home county of Mathews, constitute recurrent flooding. Lawrence was instrumental in writing, and then revising, HB 1774 in close association with the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William & Mary Law School for Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, the bill’s sponsor.
Lawrence has inserted unsupported claims attributing flooding on VDOT roads to sea-level rise in at least nine MPPDC reports since 2009. In the first of these studies, which assessed the human and ecological impacts of sea-level rise upon vulnerable locations in the Middle Peninsula, he used maps indicating that one foot of sea-level rise by 2050 would inundate large portions of Middle Peninsula counties.
Those maps don’t stand up to scrutiny. In one of those reports, the 2050 map for Mathews County reports shows 6.7 miles of VDOT roads in inundated marsh and inland areas, yet fails to show the breach in the Winter Harbor barrier beach that left marshes open to the Bay since a 1978 April nor’easter.
Official projections of recurrent flooding from sea-level rise are based on maps with flawed elevation measurements.
Why is that significant? Because the Chesapeake Bay is connected to the ocean, it reflects the ocean’s high and low tides. The rise and fall of the tides varies from one location to another depending upon the depth of the water and the shape of the coastline, among other factors. Before the nor’easter, a narrow channel at the south end restricted the flow between the Bay and Winter Harbor. The breach in the barrier beach opened the marshes at the north end of Winter Harbor to the tides of the Chesapeake Bay.
The postulated 2050 inundation shown on the map is caused by one foot of sea level rise. But in real life, the daily high tides already run 1 ½ feet to 2 ½ feet, and storm-driven tides can add one or two feet more without having the depicted impact. Nearly three decades after the nor’easter, Hurricane Isabel did cause coastal and inland flooding, but its 7.9 feet of storm surge did not produce the degree of inundation shown for one foot of hypothetical sea level rise in the MPPDC’s map.
Another publication, a September 2016 MPPDC report for the Mathews County Planning Commission, references a 2013 MPPDC study done by Draper Aden Associates (DAA), the Mathews County Rural Ditch Enhancement Study, which said:
One of the primary results of the project was the reaffirmation that poor drainage due to lack of ditch maintenance and sea level rise compounds the flooding problems and flood management solutions utilized within Mathews County.
The supposed affirmation of sea level rise impact in the DAA study was based on flawed LiDAR-derived elevation numbers and an assumed 5-inch sea-level rise in 24 years extracted from the maximum estimate in a 2010 VIMS report to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. That VIMS report described “a total possible sea level rise of 0.12 to 0.22 inches per year in the Mathews County area,” or 3 to 5.6 mm a year. (My book, “Drowning a County,” uses 3.5 mm a year based on the Kiptopeke tide gauge trend of 3.48 mm since Mathews has no tide gauge.)
Draper Aden used 2011 Virginia Geographic Information Network LiDAR maps that show elevations of 2 feet for cultivated fields, forested areas, Route 645, and Gullwing Cove Lane — supposedly the same elevation as the marsh to the west. Yet, contrary to what one would expect from these elevations, normal high tides of two feet do not cause any movement of water from marshes and creeks into adjacent fields. Rather, fresh water floods across the roads because it is unable to flow through damaged or blocked VDOT pipes, ditches or outfall streams to nearby water bodies. Continue reading →
Virginia’s infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.
I have often opined on Virginia’s hidden deficits — fiscal time bombs in the form of budgetary gimmicks, pension under-funding, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. These problems are national in scope, and Virginia has been somewhat less derelict in its duty than other states, but sooner or later the Old Dominion will have an ugly confrontation.
The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) rams home the message. The U.S. overall infrastructure rates a D+ rating. Virginia-specific infrastructure rates a C-. (For whatever reason the 2017 national report card links to the 2015 Virginia report card.)
Here’s a summary of the ASCE’s run-down of major infrastructure categories.
Bridges. Virginia has 20,977 bridges and culverts, and their overall health is in decline due to age and lack of funding. Fifty-six percent are approaching the end of their 40-year anticipated design life. Some 30% are more than 50 years old. In 2013, 23% were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. “Available funds are often used to address immediate repair or replacement needs, leaving few remaining funds for preventative maintenance. … The statistics indicate an impending peak of replacements which may be required within the next 10 years.”
Dams. Virginia’s dam inventory continues to grow older and more susceptible to damage. The majority were built in the 1950-75 era, and their average age is 50 years old. Of the state’s high-hazard dams, 45% have conditional certificates, indicating that they do not meet current safety standards. The rehabilitation cost for high- and significant-hazard dams is estimated to be $392 million.
Drinking water. Virginia has 2,830 public water systems supplying drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians. A large number of these systems have passed 70 years in age. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment showed that Virginia waterworks need nearly $6.1 billion over the next 20 years. “Deferral of the necessary improvements has worked so far, but can result in degraded water service, water quality violations, health issues, and higher costs in the future.”
Parks & recreation. Park attendance in Virginia is on the rise, and state parks are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation. The ASCE commentary vaguely states that “a lack of commitment to adequately fund and maintain our facilities will change things for future generations.”
Rail and transit. The report focuses mainly on the inadequacies of funding for passenger rail, which must share rail lines owned by railroad companies that give their own commercial traffic priority. Virginia did recently set up a Rail Enhancement Fund, and it created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, although it did not actually put any money into the latter. “The current funding is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rail and passenger service or to complete the much-needed rail infrastructure improvements and upgrades.”
Roads. The condition of Virginia roads is tolerable from a maintenance and safety standpoint, but traffic congestion in the Washington and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas has a huge negative economic impact. The average Washington-area commuter experiences 74 hours a year of delay. Despite an increase in transportation funding in 2013, “a network that has grown by 14% over the last 35 years and with every dollar buying less construction work, more funding is needed to maintain safe roadways while adding needed capacity, making this a high priority for Virginia.”
Schools. More than 1,800 public school buildings serve Virginia’s K-12 students. A comprehensive 2013 analysis found that 60% of schools are at least 40 years old. Estimated renovation costs exceed $18 billion for schools more than 30 years old.
Solid waste. Virginia’s solid waste infrastructure is in “good” condition. Increased recycling, a reduction in out-of-state waste, and the addition of 11 additional waste facilities have increased the state’s capacity from 20 years to 22 years.
Stormwater. About one-third of Virginia’s stormwater infrastructure is more than 30 years old, and much of the remainder was built 25 to 30 years ago. Most stormwater infrastructure has a 50- to 100-year lifespan. But the ASCE report is not impressed. “There are shortcomings to address for state-level, standardized reporting, public education, and ensuring a dedicated source of funding commensurate with the economic benefits of a healthy Chesapeake Bay and Virginia ecosystems.”
Wastewater. Virginia has $6.8 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, a 45% increase from ASCE’s previous report card in 2009. That includes $1 billion for combined-sewer overflow, and much more to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean water standards. “Virginia has made progress with considerable investments and has a comprehensive plan, but has tremendous challenges ahead.”
I don’t share the ASCE’s sense of urgency for every category. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, there are alternatives to building more road and transit projects: (1) reforming land use to provide a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities, and (2) accelerating the Uber-ization of ride sharing in order to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. I also question whether 40 years is an appropriate standard for rehabilitating or replacing school buildings. Clearly, many schools need rehabbing, but the study may overstate the number.
Even with these caveats, Virginia’s infrastructure deficit runs into the billions of dollars. And this analysis does not address recurrent flooding, an increasing problem in Hampton Roads. On top of all the other issues mentioned above, hardening the region’s infrastructure will cost billions of dollars of dollars more.
Update: Charles Marohn over at the Strong Towns blog eviscerates the ASCE report, which he describes as a “propaganda document.”
The reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)
Sixty years of unproductive infrastructure spending later, we are awash in maintenance liabilities with no money to pay for them. This is what happens when you have a government-subsidized, Ponzi-scheme growth system that, at all times, lives for the next transaction. America is all about new growth, which is why we don’t even bother to question the findings in a study like this.
Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, discusses VDOT ditch and outfall issues with G.C. Morrow in 2013.
By Carol J. Bova
In the second part of this series, I described how the General Assembly recognized intrinsic problems in HB 1774, a bill designed to remedy deficiencies in stormwater legislation enacted in 2016 and scheduled to go into effect July 1 this year. But instead of killing the bill, legislators passed a substitute.
That substitute, HB 1774 H1, turned from implementation to study, directing the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency to consider alternative methods of stormwater management in rural Tidewater localities.
By passing the substitute, the House and Senate delayed the effective date of the 2016 law and provided more time to work out problems that have come to light.
The Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William and Mary Law School will facilitate a work group for the HB 1774 study. This group will “include representatives from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Old Dominion University, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, local governments, environmental interests, private mitigation providers, the agriculture industry, the engineering and development communities, and other stakeholders as determined necessary.”
It seems rural residents didn’t make the A-list for this group. That’s a shame because citizen groups have studied water drainage issues in low-lying areas near the Chesapeake Bay, and they learned a few things that the experts overlook. Even the HB 1774 substitute, which aims to fix problems in the original HB 1774… which in turn was supposed to fix the 2016 law… could turn out to be gravely flawed.
The revised HB 1774 changes the project area from six rural counties of the Middle Peninsula to the 29 counties and 17 cities of Virginia’s Tidewater. If the concept moves beyond the study stage, developers in ten urban counties — Arlington, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Hanover, Henrico, James City, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford, and York — will be able to buy stormwater credits generated by the rural Tidewater counties similar to the way developers can offset the impact of their projects by purchasing credits from a wetlands bank.
The “Tidewater” localities are outlined in red.
Nineteen counties have enough rural locations to establish Rural Development Growth areas along their state roads and highways if they agree to manage the new Regional Stormwater Best Practicies facilities (RSPs). In theory, these facilities will generate enough offset credits to let the RDGs use the current stormwater standards instead of the new, stricter standards, and still provide enough credits to sell to urban developers who need them. If the governor signs HB 2009, which passed the House and Senate, the localities could hire a third party to handle both the RSP management and credit sales on their behalf.
The original bill estimated the it would cost the Department of Environmental Quality $490,000 annually to hire staff to monitor the program for its first five years. But the bill provided no estimate of what expense localities would incur to administer the program, how much developers in urban counties might save, or how much income might be generated through the sale of credits. Presumably, the work group will address these issues. Continue reading →
Del. Keith Hodges introducing a substitute for HB 1774.
By Carol J. Bova
Virginia’s part-time legislators saw 3,168 bills introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session according to the Richmond Sunlight website. Inundated with such a volume of legislation, overworked part-time lawmakers are hard-pressed to grind throughcomplex issues.
In such circumstances, speeding bills through the legislature can lead to bad law. And that appears to have been the case with a bill, enacted in the 2016 session, that put into place stormwater management legislation due to go into effect July 1, 2017.
Alerted to deficiencies in that law, lawmakers took up the issue again in the 2017 session. The issues got so ticklish and hard to resolve that legislators threw up their hands and passed a bill that delayed implementation of the original law and gave them a yearto reconcile the manyconflicting interests.
Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, took the lead on updating the stormwater law this year. He submitted three interrelated bills, which he wrote with the assistance of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William and Mary Law School and the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. One of the bills, which allows jurisdictions to outsource administration of the stormwater law to third-party engineering firms, was uncontroversial and sailed through the House and Senate.
But the other two, HB 1774 and HB 2008, got tangled up in the legislative process. The main sticking point was how to deal with a loophole in the law going into effect in July that set different triggers at which counties had to put into place stormwater management programs. For most of the state, the regulations apply when a project disturbs 10,000 square feet of land up to one acre (at which point the Department of Environmental Quality steps in). But for the 29 counties and 17 cities defined in state law as “Tidewater,” which have the greatest potential to affect water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, the requirement kicked in at 2,500 square feet.
The Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), the lobbying arm of local governments, took the position that the 2,500-square-foot trigger was too onerous and described the closing of the “donut hole” — between 2,500 and 10,000 square feet — as one of its primary objectives of the 2017 session. HB 2008 would have accomplished precisely that.
However, at some point during the session, Hodges concluded that even the 10,000-square-feet trigger was too tough. Counties wanted out because they are not in the business of managing the erosion and stormwater impacts of land disturbance. They would have to add staff and find funding from already strained budgets. Counties with little new construction would not generate enough permit fees to offset the costs when they occurred, while even counties experiencing modest growth had no guarantee new fees would be sufficient.
Accordingly, Hodges withdrew HB 2008.
That left HB 1774 as the main vehicle for fixing the soon-to-be-enacted law. Like the Indian parable of several blind men trying to discern the nature of an elephant, the bill seemingly offered something to all the special interests involved in stormwater management:
New business opportunities for engineering firms — if there is a source of funding to create the stormwater management facilities.
Improved Chesapeake Bay water quality — if the new Regional Stormwater Best Practices facilities (RSPs), or stormwater banks, work as advertised. (See previous story for details.)
New rural economic development — if new RSPs actually do reduce costs for developers.
New income for localities from the sale of stormwater mitigation credits to developers — if there is an excess to sell and if there is water to treat in the first place.
Relief for the Virginia Department of Transportation of obligations for roadside drainage by transferring exclusive use of the water in its ditches to new stormwater management facilities — if the water remains in the ditches and if VDOT can ignore the rights of downstream parties to use of the water.
Administrative savings for DEQ — if localities agree to take over the stormwater management and if the 2% of fees paid by developers for excess credits offset the $490,000/year extra in salaries for monitoring.
It all works if the system has enough money. Trouble is, rural counties just aren’t experiencing the kind of population and commercial growth to generate the fees to make all these things happen. The five-year census update estimate from the Weldon Cooper Center calls the premise into question.
Hamilton Lombard with Demographics Research Group at UVA said in the [email protected] blog :
“While population growth continues or accelerates in most of Virginia’s urban areas, much of rural Virginia will likely continue to experience slow population growth or decline during this decade.”
With all these problems, including the $2.45 million expense to hire DEQ employees to monitor the project, what happened to HB 1774? The House committee didn’t kill it. The legislators requested a substitute bill.
To be continued in Part Three — Starting Over
Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County: When urban myths destroy rural drainage,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its highway drainage in Mathews County.
HB 1774 would give credits for projects using water from roadside drainage ditch like this one in Mathews County. Photo credit: The Ditches of Mattews County.
By Carol J. Bova
Virginia legislation usually follows a logical pattern in which bills lay out what they intend to do and the means by which their goals will be accomplished. This series looks at one bill introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session that missed the mark, morphing into a substitute bill that passed the House and Senate. The intentions behind it were honorable. The consequences, however, could be disastrous.
This is not an easy story to tell or to read. Like any mystery, only when all the pieces are laid out and examined will the background and details fit together to fill in the gaps. Even then, the final part of this story will take the next ten months to unfold.
This introduction in a series of four posts sets the stage and describes the contents of HB 1774. Part Two explores the problems in the original bill. Part Three looks at the surprising substitute bill. Part Four shows the mapping errors and assumptions that pointed lawmakers in the wrong direction.
The requirements of last year’s stormwater management legislation, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2017, will be expensive and hard to incorporate into new developments in the Commonwealth. Many projects will need mitigation credits, which are scarce and in high demand.
Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, teamed up with the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William and Mary Law School and the Executive Director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission (MPPDC), Lewis Lawrence, to create legislation to alleviate the situation. MPPDC hired a consultant to assist in the work.
Under the combined banners of encouraging rural economic development, easing stormwater management requirements for new development, and creating more mitigation credits for both urban and rural projects, the team crafted HB 1774.
This plan would generate stormwater mitigation credits using new Regional Stormwater Practices (RSP) Banks. The Virginia Department of Transportation would give exclusive use of the water in its roadside ditches to an RSP bank to use in a bioretention or other BMP (Best Management Practice) to improve water quality in order to create the mitigation credits.
These credits would be applied first to Rural Development Growth ((RDG) areas along the highways adjacent to the banks, and excess credits would be sold to other developers.
Under the regulations scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2017, many rural localities chose to opt out of administering stormwater programs for new developments involving 10,000 square feet or one acre of land disturbance, and have the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) continue to administer the program as it had before the new legislation. (Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act areas had a lower threshold for the regulations, 2,500 square feet or one acre of land disturbance.)
Localities would receive fees to entice them into managing the new stormwater program for the RDG areas and overseeing the operation of the RSP banks. States the bill: “The fees for certain stormwater best management practices (BMPs) shall be paid directly to the locality.” From these fees, a locality would place 50 percent of the amount developers saved through the program into an account to operate the RSP bank. (Note: the bill is silent on who determines the fees or how the cost savings would be verified.)
There’s an additional provision for those localities with Chesapeake Bay Preservation areas–the State Water Control Board would authorize “any political subdivision of the Commonwealth that is located in Planning District 18 and is subject to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act … to designate a qualified entity to establish and administer an RSP bank.” This would include Middle Peninsula county governments, and MPPDC. If the Governor signs a related Hodges’ bill, HB 2055 which passed the House and Senate this session, the Rural Coastal Virginia Community Enhancement Authority would become a new political subdivision.
A private entity designated to operate an RSP bank would annually “return eight percent of the [mitigation] credit revenue it generates to the locality in which it is located and two percent” to DEQ.
To enable a private entity to do this, Del. Hodges introduced HB 2009 to allow administration of a stormwater management program by a certified third party. HB 2009 passed the House and Senate with ease.
To be continued in Part Two: Buzzwords and Bills–Donut Hole Defeat and a Second Chance for HB 1774
Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County: When urban myths destroy rural drainage,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its highway drainage in Mathews County.
After getting soaked with rain over the past two weeks, most Virginians would find it difficult to imagine that the Old Dominion could ever face a water shortage. But the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has been thinking beyond next week’s weather forecast, and while there are no immediate threats to the viability of Virginia’s water supply, the commission say that the long-term outlook in eastern Virginia is problematic.
The eastern, most populated portion of Virginia is heavily dependent upon a coastal plain aquifer system. Due to flat terrain and the omnipresence of wetlands, eastern Virginia is not topographically well suited to building water reservoirs. As a consequence, many water consumers rely upon well water.
At present small users (withdrawing less than 300,000 gallons per month) suck about 40 million gallons per day out of the aquifer system. Big users requiring permits are expected to withdraw between 43 and 58 million gallons per day. States JLARC in a new report, “Effectiveness of Virginia’s Water Resource Planning and Management“:
Assuming [the Department of Environmental Quality] achieves the proposed permit reductions it is currently negotiating and current reported withdrawals continue unchanged over the next few years, water levels are predicted to show only small declines and fall below regulatory minimum levels in only a few parts of the aquifer over 50 years. … Beyond the next few years, though, sustainability is tenuous and can be easily tipped out of balance. Potential growth in both unpermitted and permitted withdrawals can easily push demand in excess of supply, leading again to unsustainable use.
While water shortages are unlikely in the next generation, the necessity to curtail major new water users is hampering economic development now. Difficulty in acquiring new permits will make it challenging for water-intensive industries to locate in eastern Virginia, states the report.
“About 85 percent of local economic developers responding to a JLARC survey reported that availability and affordability of water were important factors for at least one new project during the past three years,” the report says. Survey respondents told JLARC of three incidents in which projects did not materialize due to water permitting issues.
So, what’s to be done? Broadly speaking, JLARC identifies three strategies relevant to eastern Virginia: (1) conservation, (2) repair of leaky infrastructure, and (3) trading water.
Conservation. Conservation by existing users can postpone the need to spend billions of dollars developing new water supplies. Conservation measures can include installation of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, water-efficient landscaping and limits on landscape irrigation, rain harvesting, and tiered pricing structures that escalate charges for big users. Two paper mills — WestRock in West Point and International Paper in Franklin — account for nearly half of all coastal plain aquifer withdrawals. If the mills could find ways to cut water consumption, they could prolong the sustainability of the aquifer by many years.
Fixing water leaks. Local water supply plans report system losses ranging from 4% to 50%, depending upon the age of the infrastructure. JLARC cites two major public water suppliers in eastern Virginia which lost 15% and 17% of their water supply to leaks in 2011. Thanks to new technologies for monitoring water pipes, it is easier to identify leaks than ever. Water authorities across Virginia should be able to prioritize their maintenance spending to patch or replace the pipes with the worst leaks, deferring the need to spend billions of dollars on new capacity.
Groundwater trading. Groundwater trading is a market-based approach in which users buy and sell rights to groundwater consumption. Trading water rights would promote more efficient allocation of the scarce resource and would accommodate economic growth by allowing new users to access groundwater. However, there are prickly legal and philosophical issues associated with what amounts to converting a public resource into private property.
Unless Virginia can cobble together some combination of these solutions, we can expect water rates to rise in eastern Virginia as municipal and regional water authorities seek to ensure their long-term supplies. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), for instance, has begun studying an “aquifer injection” project that would inject about 120 million gallons per day of treated wastewater in the coastal aquifer, more than offsetting all current withdrawals. Among the benefits: reducing land subsidence that contributes to local flooding and reversing saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. However, the estimated price tag is hefty: about $1.2 billion in up-front capital and between $21 million to $43 milllion in annual operating costs.
JLARC urges legislators to tighten up standards for withdrawing water from the coastal aquifer, and capping the withdrawals that any single entity can make. Whatever the solution relied upon, Virginia needs to implement it soon. While water shortages may be decades away, the looming scarcity is affecting Virginia’s economic competitiveness today.
Bacon's Rebellion is Virginia's leading politically non-aligned portal for news, opinions and analysis about state, regional and local public policy. Read more about us here.
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