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City stormwater projects move ahead, though state funding stalled

Catwalks in a grid are surrounded by pipes and columns at the Shockoe Retention Basin.
Scott Elmquist
VPM News File
The Shockoe Retention Basin is one of the city's storage locations for stormwater.

An expected $100 million windfall could help Richmond meet state pollution standards.

Members of Richmond City Council heard an update on the city’s efforts to reduce the release of raw sewage into the James River at Wednesday’s Governmental Operations Committee meeting.

Richmond is required to meet state pollution standards by 2035. Currently, heavy rainfall regularly overloads the city’s dated sewer system, causing overflows. That’s a concern because much of the sewer is combined — transporting and storing storm runoff and human waste in the same pipes.

So, when a downpour overloads the system — which can happen in half an hour or less — it’s more than just rainwater overflowing into the James River.

But the cost to actually address those issues is enormous.

Department of Public Utilities Engineering Manager Robert Stone told City Council this week that the final bill likely will be “in the range of half a billion to over a billion dollars.”

Officials have long said that residential utility rates could triple if the city doesn’t receive help in the form of grant money. The new city budget increases rates starting July 1: 6.5% for wastewater and 8.75% for stormwater.

The city expected some relief in the form of a $100 million windfall from the amended state budget this year. However, due to a reported breakdown in state budget negotiations, the city likely will not receive that cash — at least not right now.

“If they don't come to some agreement, then the previous two-year biennial budget will continue in force, and that $100 million will not materialize,” Stone said.

But officials said as long as the money is set aside in next year’s budget, the delay shouldn’t have a big impact on project finances. Stone explained to councilors that most of the major expenses for the project are years down the line.

Richmond is currently implementing an interim plan to reduce sewer spillage, as required by state law. That includes 10 projects to manage flow using existing system capacity and is expected to cut back overflow volumes by 182 million gallons yearly. In the past several years, total annual overflows have ranged from about 500 million gallons to more than 4 billion gallons.

The interim plan could cost $50 million, which is mostly covered by money set aside in the American Rescue Plan Act, Stone said.

Richmond engineers and a stakeholder group made up of residents from each of the city’s nine council districts are also working on a final plan, due next summer. That will include more expensive portions of the project and likely will include doubling or tripling the system's storage capacity. Engineers will also separate sections of combined pipes, add additional water treatment infrastructure, install bigger pipes and plant green infrastructure to slow the flow of water.

Work on that will stretch from 2025 until 2035.

The city is pursuing a range of other funding opportunities to keep costs from falling to ratepayers. At the federal level, those include congressional earmarks; the Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Grant Program; and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans. Officials are also pursuing Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund loans.

Loans would have to be repaid by ratepayers but come at a lower cost than traditional utility bonds.

Department of Public Utilities Director April Bingham encouraged council members to keep the conversation about project costs alive, so the city can build up a cash reserve.

“It really is about education right now, outreach and advocacy,” Bingham said.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host. He began his career as a VPM News intern in 2019 and has covered pipelines, urban heat islands, the electric grid and more. You can find him biking in Bryan Park, petting neighborhood cats or listening to live music.