In a move to accelerate the Chesapeake cleanup effort, the Virginia General Assembly approved $15 million to curb runoff pollution and to help local governments upgrade wastewater treatment plants.

The money, requested by Gov. George Allen late last year, will help pay for nutrient reduction efforts outlined in "tributary strategies" being developed for each of the Bay's major tributaries. The assembly also approved a new program to allow citizens to donate to Bay restoration efforts.

"These initiatives represent the Commonwealth's first major investment toward implementing the Shenandoah and Potomac Tributary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which will have a great impact on the Chesapeake Bay," Allen said during a bill-signing ceremony. "And, these new laws also expand our efforts to enhance and improve the waters in other regions of Virginia."

The measures are intended to help address concerns of local governments about the cost of implementing tributary strategies, which outline tactics intended to meet the the Bay Program's 40 percent nutrient reduction goal for nitrogen and phosphorus. The nutrients spur algae blooms in the Bay, which degrade its water quality.

Last fall, a tributary strategy for Virginia's portion of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers outlined options that could cost up to $193 million, mostly to upgrade wastewater treatment plants with technology to remove nitrogen from their discharges. Tributary strategies for other Virginia rivers are under development.

The Virginia Water Quality Improvement Act of 1997, which was signed by Allen, establishes a voluntary, cooperative statewide program to address point and nonpoint source pollution through state technical and financial assistance. The act was sponsored by Delegate W. Tayloe Murphy, Jr., chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel representing the legislatures of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The bill establishes the Water Quality Improvement Fund, which is to be administered by the Department of Conservation for nonpoint source projects and the Department of Environmental Quality for point source improvements.

The fund will be supported by annual appropriations and, unless otherwise provided in the general appropriation act, will consist of 10 percent of any general fund annual surplus and 10 percent of any unreserved agency balances.

For Fiscal Year 1998, the General Assembly appropriated $15 million to the fund: $10 million to point source projects, and $5 million to nonpoint source programs.

The act mandates that until all of the Bay tributary strategies have been developed and implemented, all money allocated for point source projects - mainly wastewater treatment plant upgrades - must be spent in accordance with the strategies.

Nonpoint source dollars are to be evenly divided between runoff control projects located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and areas of the state outside the Bay drainage area.

The General Assembly also approved a bill championed by Allen that creates a check-off on the state income tax refund beginning next year that will allow citizens to make voluntary contributions to the Water Quality Improvement Fund.

Besides the funds earmarked for the Bay, another $8 million was provided to the state's Wastewater Revolving Loan Fund, which makes low-interest loans for wastewater treatment plans throughout the state. That money is expected to help leverage about $44 million in federal funds over the next two years.

The General Assembly also approved legislation that extends the deadline for completing tributary strategies for the York and James river basins by six months, from Jan. 1, 1998, to July 1, 1998. The deadline for the Rappahannock River was moved back one year to Jan. 1, 1999.

The General Assembly also repealed a clause in earlier legislation requiring that the strategies be submitted to the assembly for approval.