Like hundreds of cities in the country, Lynchburg’s earliest sewer infrastructure was built to get the water — and whatever else might be flushed or flowing into it — out of the Virginia city and into the nearest stream or river as quickly as possible.
In 1955, the city added a wastewater treatment plant that greatly reduced the amount of raw sewage flowing into the nearby James River. But, like many wastewater treatment systems of that era, it captured both sewage and stormwater and therefore could easily be overwhelmed by heavy rains. To prevent sewage backups, the system was designed to divert the wet-weather overflows directly to the river. This has come to be known as a combined sewer overflow (CSO) system.
At first count in the 1970s, Lynchburg had 132 outfalls into the James or its tributaries, where sewage from the city’s CSO system would routinely spew. By the mid-1990s, the city was under a consent order with state regulators to eventually eliminate those overflows, which had only gotten worse as new residents added pressure to the system.
During heavy rains, pipes would gush their unseemly contents into the nearest waterway, many of them in the backyards of suburban neighborhoods.
“This was pre-Clean Water Act by a long shot, and these old cities were just constructed this way,” said Upper James Riverkeeper Pat Calvert, who’s been following Lynchburg’s progress for years. “They were literally designed to overflow into the river, and that’s just not legal these days.”
With a population of less than 80,000, Lynchburg is the smallest of three cities in the state working to reduce the amount of sewage-fouled stormwater entering rivers via antiquated CSO systems. Richmond’s system overflows into the James River about 100 miles downstream from Lynchburg, and Alexandria’s system empties into tributaries of the Potomac River. And, of course, it all ends up in the Bay.
Until a few years ago, Lynchburg was attacking the problem by painstakingly separating its sanitary and storm sewer systems. But in the face of skyrocketing costs and after studying scores of alternatives, the city came up with an entirely different plan — and one that would get the job done in a quarter of the time and expense. The solution: vastly increase storage capacity at the city’s wastewater treatment plant to hold the overflows until they could be treated.
By 2013, after years and years of tearing up neighborhood streets to redirect pipes and asking residents to direct their downspouts away from the overwhelmed system, Lynchburg’s work was 80 percent complete and had eliminated 112 of the overflow points, reducing the average annual overflow volume from about 1,100 million gallons to 200 million gallons per year.
But the price of completing the overhaul was rising steeply as workers neared Lynchburg’s more densely developed historic downtown — where eliminating each overflow would cost closer to $10 million than $2 million apiece. City officials estimated it could take another 40 years and an additional $260 million to resolve the rest of the overflow points by continuing to separate the systems. In contrast, expanding storage capacity at the plant, city officials estimated, would cost about $60 million and take less than a decade.
“We had to look at this problem with a more holistic approach,” said Tim Mitchell, Lynchburg’s director of water resources who’s been with the city 17 years. “It greatly accelerates the program because we’re treating more stormwater; it improves water quality more than separation.”
Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality hasn’t given any of the three cities deadlines for curtailing their overflows, but has required them to be “on a reasonable track” of progress toward water quality goals, according to DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. Though regulators must agree to any major changes, a city can take one of several approaches to meet the requirements. Lynchburg’s new plan was approved by the state in an updated consent order in 2015.
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 stormwater running off 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 overflow under a federal consent decree, which includes 13 miles of underground storage tunnels to be completed by 2022.
Once construction is completed in Lynchburg, the increased capacity will help capture 93 percent of polluted overflows compared with 85 percent under the original plan, Mitchell said.
Not everyone thinks these projects go far enough to improve water quality, and Lynchburg’s plan has been subject to some of the same scrutiny. Tom Shahady, a professor of environmental science at Lynchburg College, said he that thinks stormwater pollution, particularly sediment, will continue to be a problem if the city doesn’t address the runoff that comes with population growth.
“They should have done more to address stormwater when they did the separation work in neighborhoods,” said Shahady, who now says he sees sediment, rather than sewage, running downhill during storms. City officials acknowledge that they’d like to do more green infrastructure, but it didn’t prove as cost-effective as other solutions that also helped reduce overflows.
While the local riverkeeper, Calvert applauded the city’s efforts to rethink the problem and speed up the timeline for a cleaner James River, he’d like to see continued progress made to reduce the remaining overflows as well.
“For decades, it had been looked at as, ‘This is going to cost us so much money and take so long,’” Calvert said of the overflows. “I think the stars just aligned and there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel that hadn’t been there.”
Calvert credits the city council and the recently retired city manager, Tim Payne, who now serves on the James River Association’s board, for thinking about “how to achieve this more quickly without costing taxpayers an arm and a leg.”
How much the project would cost residents was also a big part of the decision to approach it differently.
Rather than applying a deadline, the consent order requires the city to do the work as residents could reasonably afford to accomplish it, with the help of state and federal grants. To that end, sewer rates must be at least 1.25 percent of the median household income in Lynchburg, which is currently just more than $39,000 per year.
Residents in Lynchburg have seen their average annual sewer bill increase from less than $200 in 1994 to about $566 in 2015, and Mitchell estimates the average household has spent $17,000 on the CSO project to date. About a quarter of Lynchburg residents were living below the federal poverty line in 2015, according to U.S. Census data.
In spite of that, Payne said, “I think we’ve shown significant progress.”
With their new plan taking shape, Lynchburg officials also received a $30 million grant from the state General Assembly in 2012 to cover about half of the remaining cost of the project. In exchange, its city council signed an agreement that Lynchburg would not request additional funds from the state for CSO projects, the majority of which should be completed in the next five years.
This year, state legislators responded to the concerns of some members of the public and environmental groups that Alexandria was not acting quickly enough to curtail its sewage overflow problems. The General Assembly passed a bill that requires Alexandria to begin construction on a fix for its CSO problems by mid-2023 and to come into compliance with water quality laws by mid-2025. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has since proposed an amendment to the bill that would give the Northern Virginia city three more years to finish the work. Alexandria hadn’t planned to begin fixing its largest source of overflows into the Potomac River until 2028, a decision environmental groups began vocally opposing late last year, noting the work that both Richmond and Lynchburg have undertaken to reduce overflows sooner. Both of those cities have received grants from the state to defray the cost, and Alexandria officials have said they plan to request state funds in the future.
So far, each of the cities is working quickly enough to satisfy the requirements of state environmental regulators, and the DEQ’s Hayden said Alexandria is only on a timeline now because state legislators have required it.
“Our goal always has been to get each city to meet the water quality standards, recognizing that it takes a long time and costs a lot of money” to fix overflows, Hayden said. “That goal is still there.”
Payne said he’s watching closely to see what happens in Alexandria. There, a median household income in the city’s Old Town area of nearly $110,000 comes with a perception that residents could afford to do more. But Payne says a deadline approach would have been detrimental to Lynchburg and its ability to fund the ongoing work.
Though they live more than 150 miles from the Chesapeake Bay, Payne said Lynchburg residents have been receptive to a project that, however costly, aims to improve water quality in their backyard James River as well. The city also used other funds to redo sidewalks, gutters and curbs while workers were replacing pipelines in residential areas, “to leave the neighborhood looking better than it did,” Payne said.
Lynchburg residents are also paying more attention these days to the river that first attracted people to this part of Virginia. Developers are re-imagining its waterfront with new residential buildings and businesses built facing the water rather than using it for transportation, as in the past.
“Lynchburg is where it is because of the James River,” Calvert said. Now, “rather than a place to dump waste, they’re seeing the river as an asset.”