Virginia grapples with cost of cleaning all state waterways
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While the cost of cleaning the Chesapeake Bay has gotten increased scrutiny in recent months, Virginia officials recently tabulated a related—and even more challenging—price tag: the cost of cleaning up all state waters.
The $12.5 billion tab goes beyond the nutrient reductions needed to achieve Chesapeake Bay water quality standards by also including the costs for meeting water quality standards in rivers, lakes and streams statewide.
Assistant Secretary of Natural Resources Russ Baxter recently presented the estimates to a legislative panel that was charged by the General Assembly to find ways to pay for the cleanups.
About 40 percent of the $12.5 billion would go to address non-Bay water problems, including non-nutrient water quality issues within the Chesapeake watershed, as well as problems outside the Bay drainage.
Baxter cautioned that the only thing certain about the estimate—like previous estimates targeting the Bay cleanup—is that the numbers will change.
The key fact, he said, is that the needed money exceeds what is available and decisions are needed about how to close that funding gap. “Frankly, we want to get out of the estimate business,” Baxter said. “They are helpful, but they are not program budgets, and that is where we need to move now.”
The total clean water costs estimated by the state include:
- $4.2 billion for cleanups in the Bay watershed not directly related to the Chesapeake cleanup.
- $1 billion for cleanups outside the Bay watershed.
- $6.2 billion to implement agricultural, urban and other runoff controls outlined in the state’s tributary strategies to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay. (That’s less than previous estimates of $8.8 billion because it’s assumed that some actions not directly targeting the Bay would yield nutrient and sediment reductions.)
- $1.1 billion for wastewater treatment plant upgrades within the Bay watershed.
State government would not have to pay the full cost of those actions, Baxter said. For instance, the state in the past has paid only half of wastewater treatment plant upgrade costs that benefit the Bay, and even smaller portions for other clean water programs. The rest of the money would be paid by the federal government, local governments, business and others.
Given historical funding patterns, Baxter said the state’s share of implementing the tributary strategies would be about $1.8 billion. “The bottom line is that the state government isn’t responsible for all of these costs,” he said. “$1.8 billion is a lot easier to manage than $10 billion.” The state’s share of non-tributary strategy costs has not yet been calculated.
Still, Baxter said it was unlikely that the state would be able to raise $1.8 billion in the near future. “We really need to start narrowing our focus and start making some decisions about priorities and how we spend what are always going to be limited amounts of money,” he said.
That means the analysis will most likely be used to help prioritize spending on programs that would achieve the greatest benefit at the least cost, such as agricultural runoff controls and upgrades at wastewater treatment plants.
Some urban issues will be addressed as well, Baxter said. “Just because, in aggregate, the urban costs are very, very high, it doesn’t mean that all urban practices are very costly,” he said. “Even nutrient management in urban areas can yield some significant benefits.”
The costs are estimates of what it would take to remove all state waters from the EPA’s impaired waters list—those that fail to meet water quality standards.
About 6,900 miles of streams in Virginia are polluted by everything from animal and human waste bacteria to toxic chemicals such as PCBs. The impaired waters list includes 1,810 square miles of estuaries throughout most of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.
The legislative panel may consider recommending a long-term source of money, such as a special tax or fee, to clean the waters. A proposed fee on sewer users, called a “flush tax,” went nowhere in this year’s General Assembly session.
Instead, the assembly approved spending an extra $50 million from the state’s general fund on the Bay cleanup for the coming year, and appointed a panel to review options.
That money, combined with part of last year’s budget surplus and unspent money from other programs, which is directed into the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund, will provide about $100 million for water cleanups in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Of that, about $81 million will be directed toward programs to control nutrient and sediment pollution to the Bay.
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