Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed giving the city of Alexandria three additional years to fix its chronic sewage overflows into the Potomac River.  

The Northern Virginia city has been working for several years to reduce the amount of rain-diluted waste that pours untreated from its antiquated combined sewer system, but environmentalists have complained that local officials weren’t moving fast enough. State lawmakers got involved this year and passed legislation that would require Alexandria to greatly reduce overflows from the system by 2024, a deadline that city engineers contend would be nearly impossible to meet.

In response, Gov. McAuliffe has proposed an amendment to the legislation that would push the completion date back to 2027 and authorize the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to grant further delays if the city is “unable to meet the deadline due to site conditions” or other complications. Multiple extensions could be granted, but the work would still need to be complete by 2030, according to the amendment.

Your intrepid Bay Journal reporter, who’s followed Alexandria’s combined sewer overflow issues , is scheduled to  discuss them  on public radio’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show at noon on Thursday. Readers can tune into WAMU 88.5 FM or online at kojoshow.org.

Alexandria, which originally said it would complete its overflow repairs in the next 20 years, opposed the bills passed by lawmakers, but city officials now say they could comply with the governor’s amended timeline.

“It’s still a more aggressive timeframe than we prefer, but it’s one that we can live with and that our engineers said is physically possible,” Alexandria spokesman Craig Fifer said.

Last year, the city agreed to begin building storage and treatment facilities to curtail overflows from three of four outfalls where they currently occur. With the approval of state environmental regulators, the city planned to leave the largest outfall — which spews nearly 70 million gallons of polluted stormwater annually into the river’s Oronoco Bay — untouched for the next 20 years.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network mounted a protest last fall to the long timetable, and the city then agreed to begin studying a fix for the fourth outfall in 2018, 14 years earlier than originally planned. But design and construction of the remedy still would not have begun for another decade after that — in 2028.

Virginia Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Westmoreland) sponsored the bill speeding that timetable, which garnered support from his own party. A popular argument for the bill on the legislative floor was that Alexandrians could afford to do more to fix their sewer overflows faster.

Alexandria is one of three cities in the state working to curtail overflows caused by aging combined sewer infrastructure. In dry weather, these systems transport sewage to a treatment plant before discharging to local water bodies. But, during heavy rains or snowmelts, the systems can be overwhelmed by influxes of runoff water and are designed to then overflow to prevent flooding and sewer backups in the city.

Lynchburg and Richmond each rely on sewer systems that periodically overflow into the James River and are working under consent orders with the DEQ to reduce overflows in the coming decade. Both cities also have received grants from the state to help fund costly upgrades to their systems, and Alexandria officials have said they plan to request state assistance with their project as well.

A growing number of the 860 cities in the country dealing with such overflows have pivoted to plans that increase their capacity to treat both sewage and stormwater, especially as regulators are requiring them to reduce the amount of polluted runoff from paved surfaces anyway.

The largest such project in the region is in the District of Columbia, where DC Water has begun building a $2.6 billion fix for its sizable sewage overflows under a federal consent decree, which includes 13 miles of underground storage tunnels to be complete by 2022.

That project just across the Potomac River from Alexandria is one of the reasons environmental groups have questioned why state and federal regulators seemed to be giving Alexandria so much time to improve its system.

Though the DEQ required the city to develop a plan for how it would end polluted discharges from three outfalls into the Potomac as part of its last permit renewal, there is no such mandate for the largest outfall into Oronoco Bay, an offshoot of the Potomac. DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said that his department plans to reassess Oronoco Bay’s water quality as part of the permit renewal process for its combined sewer system in 2018.

So far, each of the cities with CSOs is working quickly enough to satisfy the requirements of state environmental regulators, Hayden said, and the only deadlines Alexandria must meet are those agreed upon by the legislature.

The governor’s amendment would need to be approved by the House of Delegates and Senate when they reconvene on April 5. Legislators could approve the amended bill’s extended timeline or, if they do not, the governor could veto the original bill entirely.