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Richmond Faces Major Price Tag On Wastewater Refresh

Water splashes
Flooding inundated Richmond last November. Heavy rain events cause back-ups in the city's sewer system which spills untreated sewage into the James River. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The air was not sweet today as Mayor Levar Stoney addressed a crowd of press, city officials and environmental advocates above the 50 million gallon Shockoe Retention Basin. He commended Gov. Ralph Northam for carving out $50 million of federal funds to help the city update its overburdened combined sewer system, but noted the full cost is significantly higher.

The expected price to fully update the sewer, which covers about a third of the city, is $883 million. For comparison, Richmond’s city budget for fiscal year 2022 is $772 million.

“We, as the City of Richmond, can’t do it alone,” Stoney said. He warned that without state and federal support, residential wastewater utility rates would rocket up to cover the cost: “We’re talking three times the current average.”

It’s not uncommon for the current system to be inundated; it only takes half an hour to fill the entire retention basin that Stoney spoke from when the city experiences heavy rain.

The only place for all that water to go is the James River.

Something In The Water

The water being flushed through this system is not clean. Wastewater requires little explanation - showers, toilet flushes, hand washing and more go down the drain and into the system.

Also unclean is stormwater, however. That refers to all of the water from rain and snow that can’t be absorbed into the ground and therefore must be handled elsewhere. In Richmond, like any other city, stormwater runoff is full of pollution from people and vehicles.

Because of that, the water needs to go through Richmond’s recently updated wastewater treatment plant before being released, but that’s one of the last steps.

When the system backs up, that’s what’s getting in the water.

Bill Street with the non-profit James River Association said his organization does weekly water quality checks. They’ve found that in the eastern portion of the city and downstream, the James River is unsafe to swim in for, on average, 35% of the summer.

“All communities, and particularly the East End communities that have been underserved and disadvantaged for many years, they deserve to have access to a clean and safe and healthy James River,” Street said.

Peggy Sanner, head of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia, said it’s “an ongoing challenge, both for bacteria and for nutrient pollution.”

For the state to reach its goal of a clean Chesapeake Bay, she says pollution sources like Richmond’s sewer system need to be addressed.

Outflows of waste and stormwater can wreak havoc on water quality and habitats downstream. By dumping the nutrient-rich wastewater, excessive algae blooms that choke out other life become more likely. And all the waste gets to the bay eventually.

What’s more, climate change is causing heavier rain events to happen in Richmond and the surrounding area. Public works employees say the short-lived but high-volume storms are too much for the system to handle.

Lawmakers will meet in Richmond next week to evaluate Northam’s proposed budget, which also includes money for clean drinking water.

James River visitors can keep tabs on river safety using the James River Association’s tool , and system overflow events by subscribing to the city’s email list

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.