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Gillies Creek project likely to reduce Richmond sewer overflows

Construction workers are seen working
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Construction workers work on Gillies Creek Sewershed project on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in the East End of Richmond, Virginia.

City adviser estimated remaining CSO work would cost $600M.

Cranes, trucks and workers have taken over much of the westbound lane of Williamsburg Avenue at Gillies Creek in Richmond’s East End.

In 2019, the sewer outfall there overflowed 43 times.

The city’s installing a new sewer pipe and relocating the outfall point to increase capacity — and take advantage of unused sewer system space. When construction is completed this fall, officials expect that under the same rainfall conditions, overflows will be cut from 43 to five.

The work is largely covered by American Rescue Plan Act funds doled out by the state Department of Environmental Quality. But it represents the start of an expensive final sprint toward compliance with state environmental mandates, which extend beyond the expiration of federal money in 2026.

Much of the city’s sewers are combined, meaning that wastewater and stormwater are held in the same pipes. When heavy rain inundates the pipes, they overflow a mixture of rain and waste into the James River and its tributaries, sending wildlife-harming pollutants into the river and the Chesapeake Bay.

Richmond has been under consent orders with the state to reduce pollution flowing from its sewer system since the 1970s. The cost of improvements to this point has been about $750 million, according to city officials, but hasn’t been enough. A 50-million gallon retention basin in Shockoe Bottom, where much of the city’s runoff flows, can fill up in less than 30 minutes during heavy rain.

LeRose gives remarks
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Grace leRose, a Policy Advisor, gives a presentation on the Combine Sewer System to the Organizational Development Standing Committee on Monday, April 1, 2024 at City Hall in Richmond, Virginia.

Under the DEQ consent order and Total Maximum Daily Load — or “pollution diet” — plans, the city must reduce its average yearly emissions of bacteria into the James by 70% by 2035.

“That’s not a small amount, it’s not easy to do and it's certainly not cheap,” said Grace LeRose, policy advisor for the city Department of Public Utilities, at a Monday meeting of the City Council Government Operations committee.

It’s about $600 million dollars worth of work, she said — a high enough price to potentially double city wastewater rates, according to a yearly report on the project to the General Assembly.

The Gillies Creek project is part of the city’s interim plan to address the pollution. A final plan, taking the city to its 2035 reduction commitment, is due to DEQ this summer.

LeRose called on the state to provide more support.

“Governor Youngkin ran saying he would fix this. We did get money from him in the previous budget, and we were hoping to continue that going forward. We will need money every single year going forward,” LeRose said.

The state budget draft currently includes $50 million for Richmond sewers; amendments from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) and Del. Betsy Carr (D-Richmond) to add another $100 million from state coffers were rejected before a draft was sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk.

Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration asked the state for $300 million this year: $100 million to be retroactively added to the previous budget, plus $100 million each in Fiscal Year 25 and FY26.

The General Assembly will reconvene on April 17 to finish legislative work for the year — and potentially finalize the budget with or without CSO funds.

Disclosure: Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities is a VPM sponsor.

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