Certainly there is some critically needed money in the governor’s biennial budget for Bay-related efforts, and in today’s anemic economy, that’s nothing to sneeze at. The proposed budget includes:
• $45 million for local sewage treatment plant upgrades. This represents surplus funds that state law requires to go into the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) for water quality purposes.
• $23 million for conservation cost-share programs that help farmers reduce pollution. This is money generated by surplus funds and a real estate recordation fee that by law go to the state’s Natural Resource Commitment Fund.
• $ 5 million from the Water Quality Improvement Fund reserve, money held back each year for local stormwater runoff planning.
• $1 million for state oyster replenishment efforts.
However, tallied against significant cuts in other clean water programs, the state’s water pollution needs, and Virginia’s commitments to the regional Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, the McDonnell budget falls short.
How so? The governor’s Bay cleanup plan relies heavily on Virginia reducing a substantial amount of pollution by encouraging farmers to use “best management practices,” environmentally friendly conservation techniques that reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from running off farmland. Most Virginia farmers are ready and willing to adopt such practices, but they need funding and technical assistance.
Virginia has a cost-share program that provides partial grants to farmers to help them pay for the practices, but the program has been historically underfunded. Every year scores of Virginia farmers are turned away because of a lack of funding. The actual need for the state’s portion of the farm cost-share program to meet Bay cleanup goals through the next two years is estimated at $82 million, according to a state Senate Finance Committee report last month.
Thus, the $23 million in Gov. McDonnell’s two-year budget is less than a third of what’s needed and will not allow Virginia farmers to keep pace with the state’s Bay restoration commitments for agriculture.
The governor’s budget also proposes a devastating $4 million cut in funding for local Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The districts provide technical and financial experts to help farmers install the needed conservation practices. One has to wonder how Gov. McDonnell expects farmers to achieve their share of pollution reductions if his budget severely shortchanges the very state programs that help them get the job done.
Another major source of Bay pollution in Virginia is inadequately treated wastewater, which is why the governor’s WIP calls for local sewage treatment plants across the Commonwealth to continue to upgrade and reduce the pollution they discharge to local streams and rivers.
Virginia localities have been doing just that for a number of years, relying upon state grants to help them upgrade existing treatment plants. In recent years, the state has signed agreements and dispensed nearly $500 million to localities for such projects. As of this month, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is obligated to fund $159 million worth of additional projects and expects another $369 million in local requests for state funding over the next decade. That includes nearly $43 million to help reduce pollution coming from the Blue Plains treatment plant in Washington, D.C., the single largest pollution source in the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Clearly, the money in the Water Quality Improvement Fund and the additional $45 million contained in the governor’s budget for wastewater upgrades won’t meet the state’s existing obligations to localities, much less those needed in the next few years. That’s why a coalition of local governments, wastewater utility authorities, manufacturers, and conservation groups are advocating for a $300 million state bond measure to finance the needed wastewater upgrades. Bond interest rates are low, construction firms are eager for work, and infrastructure improvements create jobs and stimulate local economies.
Yet, the governor’s budget fails to support a bond measure. Unless the Virginia legislature chooses to approve increased state financing for these upgrades, localities will have little choice but to further raise local utility rates, increasing the financial burden on local citizens.
Another ominous line in Governor McDonnell’s budget would boost the Department of Environmental Quality’s budget by $480,000 for unspecified litigation. Asked to explain, state officials were vague, leaving some to speculate whether Virginia intends to fight federal air and/or water pollution standards in court. Time will tell.
Of course, the Virginia General Assembly can, and should, amend Gov. McDonnell’s budget to better fund the programs needed to provide clean water to Virginians -- as the Virginia Constitution requires. If you’re a Virginia voter, you might remind your legislator of that.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation