Little more than a day earlier, the water pouring from a tap outside the York River Treatment Plant had been wastewater: sewage flushed down toilets, soapy water drained from bathtubs, food waste washed down the sink and industrial waste piped into sewer lines.
Now, the water from the silver spigot was crystal clear, filling a clean glass that said “SWIFT” on its side.
And it tasted like water from a well.
The water was good enough to drink — maybe too good, according to officials from the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, which operates the York River plant and a dozen others in southeastern Virginia. Instead of just treating wastewater and discharging it into the river as they’ve done for decades, district officials say they’ve now produced a valuable resource that can solve multiple problems facing the region.
“We don’t have to waste the water,” said Jamie Heisig-Mitchell, chief of technical services. “We can actually use it for something that benefits the state.”
Their work may redefine what is doable at the region’s wastewater treatment plants. They now propose taking treated wastewater from seven of its nine largest facilities and treating it again to meet drinking water standards.
Then, they want to pump the double-treated water into a deep aquifer underlying the region. That would help rebuild eastern Virginia’s depleted water supply, they said, as well as reduce the rapid rate of sea level rise in the Hampton Roads area. It would also slash nutrient discharges far beyond what the district must do to meet Bay cleanup goals. This is especially true in large tidal rivers, where wastewater discharges would largely come to an end.
They call it SWIFT: the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow.
Supporters say the $1 billion project could provide all of those benefits without increasing costs for the district’s ratepayers beyond what’s currently projected — if the district is allowed to postpone some needed fixes to address sewer overflows.
The project represents a huge change in thinking for the regional agency which, since its creation in the 1940s, has focused simply on treating wastewater and discharging it into the river.
“We spend our lives trying to improve the environment, but we still pollute,” said general manager Ted Henifin. “We put out water that is highly treated and meets the needs of the receiving water body, but we don’t feel great at the end of the day. We are going to feel wonderful if we can pull this off.”
Local governments in the Hampton Roads area are on board with SWIFT because they face nearly $2 billion in stormwater upgrades to meet Bay goals, and SWIFT could substantially reduce those costs. State officials credit the sanitation district for the kind of innovative thinking they say is needed to not only help meet Bay cleanup goals, but to maintain reduced nutrient levels into the future.
Environmental groups agree the concept has merit, though they want to see more details. They are concerned that, while the project helps the region’s big rivers and the Bay, it could delay improvements to local streams that reduce stormwater runoff. “There are a lot of people who fish boat and swim in those areas, and stormwater is really their biggest concern,” said Jamie Brunkow, the Lower James Riverkeeper. “It is not the wastewater.”
Nonetheless, the vision put forward by the sanitation district has injected an air of optimism into environmental discussions at a time when problems facing the Bay are often expensive — and complicated — to fix, said Peggy Sanner, assistant director and senior attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office.
“We all furrow our brows, and we trudge forward,” she said. Then, she added, “you go to meetings where SWIFT is discussed, and everybody leaves with a lighter heart.”
“People are understandably excited by it, but we can’t abandon caution.”
A new direction
The sanitation district has never been in the drinking water business. It was created by the state as an independent local agency to clean up sewage problems in southeast Virginia.
Today, it handles wastewater for 1.7 million people. Its 13 plants treat 160 million gallons a day, and serve 18 cities or counties.
The SWIFT project emerged from a long-term planning process.
The district invested $500 million over the previous decade to upgrade its wastewater treatment plants to meet Bay nutrient reduction goals, and more costly requirements are likely in the future. There are growing concerns about emerging contaminants in wastewater discharges, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, which can harm aquatic life. And, if other nutrient sources don’t meet their Bay cleanup goals, wastewater plants could be on the hook to make up the difference.
Further Bay-related nutrient reduction upgrades alone could cost another $750 million, according to district estimates.
Officials began toying with the idea of incorporating the maximum feasible treatment technology at their plants. “Our thought process was ‘let’s take our water all the way to drinking water, and maybe the regulators won’t do anything more to us,’ ” Henifin said.
But the process would produce clean drinking water, which is not immediately needed in the Hampton Roads area.
Then, officials hit on the idea of injecting their treated water into the ground. The region sits above the huge Potomac Aquifer, a major water source for much of Eastern Virginia. Commercial and residential wells there pump out an estimated 144 million gallons a day, which far exceeds its recharge rate.
Those withdrawals also contribute to land subsidence in the region. Water levels in the Hampton Roads region are rising at the rate of about 4 millimeters a year — the highest pace in the nation outside New Orleans. About half of that is attributed to rising sea levels, and the other half to sinking land — much of the latter caused by withdrawals from the Potomac Aquifer.
Also, it is a confined aquifer, which means it’s largely surrounded by dense layers of rock and clay, so water in the Potomac Aquifer was pressurized — so much so that when wells were first drilled into it, the water came out on its own, without the need for pumps.
That’s no longer the case today. And as pressure in the aquifer has been reduced, scientists are worried it could start drawing in salty ocean water, ruining the aquifer as a drinking-water source. The potential lack of a reliable water supply has raised concerns about future economic growth in much of the state east of Interstate 95, which is above the aquifer.
The HRSD plan would pump 120 million gallons a day of treated drinking water into the ground. That — along with natural recharge — would help repressurize the aquifer, prevent saltwater intrusion and maintain it as a viable water source.
“There will be no development in eastern Virginia if we don’t have a water source,” Henifin said. “So, putting this water into the aquifer really creates a future for eastern Virginia that doesn’t exist.”
Injecting treated water could also slow the rate of sea level rise in Hampton Roads. The region is already suffering from increasing rates of flooding, and whole city blocks in Norfolk are being elevated for protection. Tidal marshes, which provide valuable habitat for many species, are being lost faster than they can migrate to higher ground.
Injecting water won’t end sea level rise, but will reduce the rate by about a quarter, giving localities — and ecosystems — more time to adapt. “No one has put a value on that, but it’s huge,” Henifin said.
While no other place in the state is doing precisely what the Hampton Roads district plans, other utilities are doing aspects of it. In Northern Virginia, the discharge from an upstream wastewater treatment plant flows into the Occoquan Reservoir, from which the Fairfax County Water Authority draws and treats drinking water. In the Hampton Roads area, the city of Chesapeake pumps excess treated drinking water into an aquifer, where it is stored until it’s needed during dry spells.
Covering the cost
The sanitation district is under a court-approved consent decree requiring it to address overflows of raw, but diluted, waste from its sewer system, which take place during heavy or prolonged rains when the ground is soaked and water infiltrates into the sewer lines.
Those overflows amount to about 5 million gallons annually, a fraction of the 160 million gallons of effluent the district’s facilities treat daily. But the HRSD estimates it would cost $2.2 billion to fix.
To make the $1 billion SWIFT project possible, the district will propose, in a plan due to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October, that most of the sewer overflow work be delayed. Instead, the HRSD would use the funds now planned for sewer repairs to turn wastewater into drinking water and inject it back into the aquifer. That, they argue, would slash the HRSD’s nitrogen discharges into the James River from 3.4 million pounds annually now, to 500,000 pounds.
Henifin said the HRSD still plans to address some sewer overflow issues — those with the greatest public threat — but the bulk of the improvements would be put off until after 2030 when the SWIFT project is completed.
At about that time, he said, the bonds that were used to finance Bay-related wastewater upgrades a decade ago will begin expiring, freeing up money to complete the sewer overflow work without major rate increases.
“By rearranging some things, and slowing down the wet weather work, we can actually put [SWIFT] in front without changing that rate projection,” Henifin said. “We really believe with the environmental benefits of this project, this is the one to work on first.”
Impact on cleanup goals, costs
The biggest question that he and others have is what will become of the pollution reduction “credits” that will be generated if the sanitation district slashes its nutrient discharges far below what’s required — nearly eliminating them in many places.
The HRSD would like to see some of those credits used to reduce the burden on local governments that are tasked with meeting stringent stormwater pollution reductions set in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or pollution diet, which are to be met by 2025.
Although the HRSD is not responsible for stormwater, Henifin said the same ratepayers are paying for both projects and should get some financial relief. By some estimates, Bay-related stormwater improvements could cost communities in the Hampton Roads area about $1.8 billion.
Eric Martin, public works director for the City of Chesapeake, called SWIFT a “game changer” for the region’s local governments looking at potentially large rate increases to deal with stormwater. “That all comes out of the bottom line household budget,” Martin said. “If we can meet a requirement through the sanitary sewer system charges, then we don’t have that pressure to raise the stormwater utility piece.”
Sanner, of the CBF, said local officials have indicated stormwater work would continue, albeit at a slower pace, but “we’d like to see that spelled out.”
Only a handful of credits would be needed to offset stormwater improvements, though. Another looming concern for environmentalists is what would happen with the potentially millions of pounds of nutrient credits that would remain.
Virginia has regulations that restrict how such trades could take place, and typically, trading is supposed to occur in areas near where reductions are made. But environmentalists worry that the surplus credits will create a temptation to allow increased nutrient discharges in more distant places — perhaps even other river basins — than is currently allowed.
“We need to be aware of that possibility,” Sanner said. She suggested that a portion of the credits should be “retired” and not used at all.
Russ Baxter, Virginia deputy secretary of natural resources for the Chesapeake Bay, acknowledged that the proposal, if it goes ahead, will create issues “and we’re going to have to work through those.”
He praised the sanitation district for tackling one of the biggest issues facing the region — how nutrient reductions would be maintained after the 2025 Bay cleanup deadline, even as the region continues to grow.
“They are thinking about serving a growing area over the long term, and how they are going to do that while protecting water quality,” Baxter said. “So, I give them a lot of credit, because that is the way we have to think now.”