Virginia lawmakers OK millions for farm BMPs, sewage plants
One bill authorizes public-private partnerships to improve stormwater controls
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Virginia farmers, wastewater treatment plant managers and localities stand to receive about $140 million over the next two years to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution under the biennial budget approved by the General Assembly in March.
Another $20 million would fund land conservation programs.
“Legislators hit a home run for Bay restoration,” said Ann Jennings, the Chesapeake Bay Commission Virginia director.
The budget funding, as well as legislation approved during the 60-day session, “will provide important improvements to the tools Virginia uses to clean up the Bay,” Jennings said.
The Bay-related money is part of a $105 billion executive budget, which — along with an associated capital spending plan — await Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s possible amendments, signature or highly unlikely veto.
The governor, who has already signed some measures, must act on all bills by April 11.
Under the budget, $61.7 million would be available over the next two years through the state’s agricultural cost-share program. The funding for installing runoff-curbing best management practices on farms is the most the legislature has ever approved, and more than double the $25 million allocated in the current biennial budget, said Peggy Sanner, deputy state director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
An unprecedented provision in the cost-share funding requires that at least $19.6 million be used to fence livestock out of streams, Jennings said.
Assuming the cost-share provisions are preserved in the final budget, Jennings said, “Virginia will lead the Bay states in support for livestock stream exclusion.”
Cattle, pigs and horses in streams and rivers are big contributors of nutrient and sediment pollution. Virginia is counting on livestock exclusion from streams to help meet the state’s Bay cleanup goals, but lack of funding to help farmers pay for fencing and other measures has not matched demand.
At the moment, Virginia farmers have $65 million in unfunded cost-share applications for stream fencing, according to Martha Moore, government affairs chief for the Virginia Farm Bureau.
One other farm-related bill awaiting McAuliffe’s signature, though seemingly not about the Bay, would still help it, Jennings said. It makes clear that farmers who accept government cost-share funding to install runoff-controlling BMPs can still serve on the boards of local soil and water conservation districts.
“Having leading farmers on the board makes it much easier to persuade other farmers to follow suit,” Jennings said.
Moore described the exemption from the state conflict of interest law as a critical legislative priority for the Farm Bureau. Questions had been raised about the legality of farmers serving on the boards.
“My father, a farmer who used many conservation practices, served on the board for 38 years. He showed farmers what could be done,” Moore said.
Virginia’s watermen also stand to benefit from $4 million allotted to oyster replenishment work.
In another area of need for the Bay, the budget would authorize a $59 million bond issue for wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Sanner said that would all but assure that Virginia plant operators stay on track to meet their share of the state’s Bay cleanup obligations by the 2025 deadline — barring any changes from a review scheduled next year.
The budget would also authorize a $20 million bond issue to help localities pay for stormwater runoff control measures. In addition, the bill would codify the stormwater local assistance fund, removing uncertainty about its continuation, Sanner said.
One closely watched bill, already signed by McAuliffe, consolidates Virginia’s twin statutes requiring controls on erosion and sediment and on stormwater. The merged law will improve regulatory and administrative efficiency without affecting clean water protections, Jennings said. Retaining water quality safeguards had been the CBF’s top priority, Sanner noted.
Under the new measure, erosion, stormwater and sediment controls still must be used on any land disturbances of 10,000 square feet or more anywhere in the state west of Interstate 95. East of I-95, in the state’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area, stormwater controls must be installed for any disturbance of 2,500 square feet or more.
The law also increases the options for localities to seek administrative help on runoff management from the state Department of Environmental Quality. That will ensure that small localities have the resources they need to do the required work, Sanner said, calling that provision a “balancing act.”
Yet another provision will direct fines and penalties for violations of the statute into the state Stormwater Local Assistance Fund.
“That way, localities that receive SLAF grants will get the benefit of good enforcement,” Sanner said.
One bill that the CBF executive described as potentially very beneficial authorizes public-private partnerships to improve stormwater pollution controls. And, it makes it clear that localities have authority to impose stormwater fees on private property owners.
Corvias Solutions, a Rhode Island company in such a partnership with Prince George’s County, MD, is in discussions with several Virginia localities about similar deals, company executive Tim Toohey said.
Three measures that would enhance nutrient pollution trading in the state cleared the legislature.
One would allow new or expanding wastewater treatment plants to buy nutrient offset credits on land owned by the facilities, as long as runoff controls on that land are more effective than required by law or Bay cleanup plans. The CBF’s Sanner noted that sewage plants typically own substantial land surrounding their facilities.
The State Water Control Board would be authorized to approve such credits. A technical advisory committee will be formed to help the DEQ come up with rules.
Another trading bill would direct the DEQ to speed up the review of nutrient pollution credits requested for developed land when that parcel is to be returned to its natural state and permanently protected.
The bill would also allow developers to engage in nutrient trading outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed, provided the trades with other entities are in the same river watershed.
The third trading measure, already signed by McAuliffe, allows trading for sediment control credits among municipalities and counties that are required to reduce their stormwater runoff. Those localities can already trade for nutrient pollution credits.
On fisheries management, conservation groups were disappointed that legislators rejected bills that would have transferred menhaden management from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. The small forage fish is the only species overseen by the lawmakers, and critics have long contended that they are heavily influenced by Omega Protein, which operates a large menhaden fishing fleet out of Reedville, VA.
But, lawmakers did extend the cap on menhaden harvest in the Bay which had been set in 2007. That cap was to have expired July 1, but a sunset provision in the law was eliminated by the General Assembly.
Two other measures would establish programs designed to help Virginia’s shoreline communities cope with rising sea levels. One sets up a fund to help residents and businesses adapt, though the Assembly provided no money in the budget. The other would direct several state universities and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to study sea level rise and make recommendations to the state and its localities for how to deal with it.
The new budget and enacted legislation will take effect July 1. The budget will apply until June 30, 2018.
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