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Few Budget Choices Are as Critical as Clean Water

Wanted: Funding for Clean Water

The following op-ed appeared on The Virginian-Pilot yesterday.

Bill Portlock, VA Sewage Treatment PLantsHampton Roads residents expect that when they flush their toilets or drain their bathtubs, the wastewater goes to a sewage treatment plant to be treated and cleaned before it is discharged to our waterways.

As the operator of local treatment plants, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District takes pride in ensuring that the complex network of pipes, plants and related systems works safely, effectively and efficiently. The district is proud to operate some of the most modern wastewater treatment systems available.

That's important from a public health standpoint, but it's also critical to anyone who loves a creek, a river, the Chesapeake Bay and the beauty and economic bounty that our waterways provide.

Many people know that farm animal manure is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. That's why it makes good fertilizer when applied appropriately.

Human waste also contains nitrogen and phosphorus. In such massive quantitiessome 1.7 million people flush toilets every day in Hampton Roads alonethis human-generated nutrient pollution has contributed to the familiar problems plaguing the bay and its rivers: cloudy water, algal blooms, oxygen-starved dead zones, and fish kills.

When HRSD treatment plants were built, nitrogen and phosphorus were not a focus of wastewater treatment, and removal of these nutrients was not required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or by Virginia. Only in more recent years has removal of nitrogen and phosphorus become a focus of wastewater treatment.

HRSD and other wastewater treatment authorities across the Bay region have made it a priority to upgrade and install modern nutrient-removal technology. The technology allows wastewater nitrogen and phosphorus to be reduced to just minute parts per million.

The EPA estimates that treatment plant upgrades kept a whopping 39 million pounds of nitrogen pollution and 6 million pounds of phosphorus pollution from getting into the bay between 1985 and 2009, a reduction of 44 percent and 67 percent respectively. These reductions are producing dramatic and positive results in the health of local streams, rivers, and the bay. While very effective, these upgrades are also expensive.

Recognizing the effectiveness of nutrient-removal technology in restoring the bay, the Virginia General Assembly has generously provided more than a half-billion dollars in grants to local sewage authorities across the state since 2005.

HRSD has been a benefactor of these funds, receiving over $100 million in grant funding toward nutrient removal upgrades at five plants. These grants have eased utility rate increases for citizens and businesses of Hampton Roads while helping provide cleaner water to local streams and rivers. They also have provided needed local jobs.

But there is still a long way to go. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality lists 32 wastewater treatment plants, including two HRSD plants, that are now upgrading in order for Virginia to achieve its 2017 bay cleanup benchmarks.

Fully funding the state's share of the cost will limit rate increases necessary to support these projects and benefit all Virginians by implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and restoring the bay, a national treasure.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and HRSD join with other conservation, local government, industry, and public utility groupsand, we hope, the region's residentsin calling upon the General Assembly to continue state funding for wastewater plant upgrades.

We applaud Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to invest an additional $101 million in state bonds over the next three years for this purpose.

Virginia has many important and competing fiscal needs. Few are more critical, however, than clean water for the bay, public health, recreation, our economy and children's future. We hope the region's residents agree and will encourage their state representatives to fund this important clean water need.

—Christy Everett and Ted Henifin

Christy Everett is Hampton Roads director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Ted Henifin is general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

  Photo: A Virginia sewage treatment plant. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

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