As construction begins on Dominion Energy’s transmission line across the James River near Virginia’s Historic Jamestowne, almost $15.6 million earmarked for water quality improvement throughout the river’s watershed is starting to flow — as a direct result of the controversial project.Most objections to the aerial transmission line have centered on the effects it would have on the viewshed at Historic Jamestowne. (Lara Lutz)

This April, the Virginia Environmental Endowment announced the first round of the James River Water Quality Improvement Program, a cycle of grants that will disburse $15.595 million in funds over the next five to nine years.

“We’re pretty optimistic that we’re going to get a good round,” said Joseph Maroon, executive director of the VEE.

The funds are part of a $91 million package of mitigation payments Dominion Energy has agreed to pay as a condition of its permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct an aerial transmission line from its Surry nuclear power plant to a future switching station to be built at Skiffes Creek near Historic Jamestowne. In another phase of the project, Dominion will run an aerial line between Skiffes Creek and its Whealton substation, located in the city of Hampton. 

Dominion has argued that the project is necessary to supply Virginia’s Lower Peninsula with adequate energy in the wake of the closure of the utility’s two coal-fired units at Yorktown and the 2014 shuttering of the Chesapeake Energy Center’s coal operations.

Numerous environmental, historical and cultural groups in the region opposed the project. Most objections centered on the effects the aerial transmission line would have on the viewshed at Historic Jamestowne, which the National Parks Conservation Association described as “evocative of the setting four centuries ago when English men and women established America’s first permanent English settlement.” Others, including those of James City County, expressed concerns about the lines’ impact on tourism, one of the region’s main economic drivers.

On an environmental level, the James River Association argued that the project would have “serious, adverse immitigable and unalterable impacts to the environment.” Some of these concerns, said association chief executive officer Bill Street, include the resuspension of sediments in the James, as well as increased erosion caused by the clearing of forests along the shoreline.

Dominion’s mitigation payments, outlined in an April 2017 memo of agreement, are intended to offset the project’s anticipated negative effects. The largest payouts, of $27.7 million and $25 million, respectively, will go to The Conservation Fund and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation for landscape and shoreline protection in the Historic Jamestowne region. Other funds will go to the Chickahominy and Pamunkey tribes, among others.

Unusually, while most of the $91 million will narrowly target the transmission line’s area of potential effects, the $15.5 million in water quality improvement funds can go toward work throughout the entire James River watershed.

“Everything flows downstream, and so the water quality in the area of potential effects is really influenced by what happens upstream,” said Street, who also served as a member of the advisory committee convened to develop a strategic investment plan for the funds. “By working throughout the James River system, we can affect the water quality in that area.”

The first grant cycle will be guided by five priorities identified by the advisory committee: the creation of streamside buffers, particularly near agricultural land; the promotion of agricultural practices that reduce pollution; investment in “living shoreline” construction, which stems erosion and provides habitat; stream restoration; and work in the Jamestown region around the area of potential effects.

In the future, the priorities may shift to adapt to changing needs, said Maroon, who noted that the VEE has “kept the door open for new ideas.”

To Street, agriculturally focused projects may prove the most fruitful. “We’ve … done probably 80 or 90 percent of what we can do with wastewater, and so the best potential for making additional improvements is really to invest significantly in agricultural reductions,” he said.

Grant awards will also be guided by the Restoration Planner, a “precision conservation” tool developed by the Chesapeake Conservancy to identify and rank potential projects in the watershed. Based on a massive set of land cover data released by the Conservancy in December 2016, the Restoration Planner was developed for the James River grant program based on an earlier tool used in the Susquehanna River watershed.

According to Jeff Allenby, director of conservation technology at the Chesapeake Conservancy, the Restoration Planner allows the VEE to “identify the projects that will deliver the most.”

Proposals for the 2018–19 grant cycle are due June 15 and will be evaluated by the VEE’s Board of Directors. Recipients will be announced in October. Matching funds are encouraged but not required, and Maroon said that proposals will ideally involve a minimum of $100,000 in funds.

“We’re looking for big projects, and we want to do big things for the James,” he said.