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Virginia waterways, Chesapeake Bay included in signed legislation

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(The Center Square) – Gov. Glenn Youngkin has now signed over 260 bills, including a handful of environmental bills meant to protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other Virginia waterways.

A few bills extend deadlines for ongoing projects or programs in the commonwealth.

The city of Alexandria has been working for years on enhancing its combined sewer overflow system, one that dates back to the 1800s. In rainy or wet seasons, the system often floods, resulting in the discharge of about 140 million gallons of combined sewer into the Potomac River.

Prior to 2017, the city was engaged in a long-term control plan with the Environmental Protection Agency and Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality that was slated to take decades. But that year, the General Assembly passed a bill to expedite the project, giving Alexandria a deadline of July 2025.

“At the time, we knew it was extraordinarily aggressive,” said Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, also member of the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission. “These are massive engineering projects, but I think we all agreed that we wanted the problem cleaned up and wanted to apply that kind of pressure.”

Despite the “extraordinarily aggressive” timeline, the city was on target to meet the 2025 deadline, but COVID-19 and the events in Ukraine delayed progress a few months.

The governor has signed both the House and Senate versions of a bill that will extend the deadline a year to July 2026, to ensure the city doesn’t incur large fines for being out of compliance. The city estimates the project will cost $615 million by the time of its completion.

House Bill 1015 will enable farmers and growers to continue to receive tax credits until 2030 for using agricultural best practices and buying farming equipment that reduces nutrient runoff from farms. Excess nutrients can diminish the oxygen content in the Bay, which can kill aquatic life.

The agricultural best management practices tax credit program allows for a maximum of $2 million in taxpayer funds to be distributed to eligible applicants per fiscal year. The most any one individual or entity can receive through the equipment tax credit is $17,500, but the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation does not list a maximum the program can award each year in total.

Another bill addresses sewage sludge regulations. Sewage sludge and biosolids are a byproduct of wastewater treatment that is often used in crop fertilization. But sludge applied when the ground is frozen or too wet doesn’t get absorbed into the soil, so it’s stored during times when conditions are unfavorable to application.

According to Bulova, who also testified for HB870, this was a problem for the commonwealth most recently in 2018 and 2019, particularly wet years for Virginia. Storage for sludge and biosolids became overfull, and when that happens, more discharge into state waters results. The bill will allow the Department of Environmental Quality to develop contingency plans for overfull storage facilities.

The Department of Planning and Budget’s fiscal impact statement said that “it is anticipated that any fiscal impact on the Departments of Environmental Quality, Conservation and Recreation, and Health as a result of this bill can be absorbed within existing resources.”

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