Virginians rely on the Commonwealth’s waterways in a variety of ways, including clean drinking water, seafood production (Virginia is the largest seafood producer on the East Coast and the third largest in the United States), and recreational tourism (the James River Park System generates over $33 million in income per year for the Richmond region).
Counter to these uses, polluted runoff — the muddy stew of stormwater, dirt, bacteria, and toxins that runs off streets, roofs, sidewalks, and other hard surfaces — is a growing issue in our creeks, streams, and rivers. The Environmental Protection Agency recently confirmed this increase in urban and suburban runoff. We need to step up and address this issue, or risk failing to meet the Commonwealth’s goal to restore our local streams and the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.
While we have made a lot of progress addressing pollution from sewage treatment plants and industry, pollution from runoff presents a more complex problem as it involves us all and stems from a wide variety of sources. Everyone’s actions impact runoff — from our yards to our pets to our vehicles to our places of employment — and we all have a role to play in addressing it.
Given its complex nature, controlling polluted runoff (sometimes referred to as stormwater) is not simple. Every site is unique and requires its own strategy. For example, suburban development does not require the same practices to address runoff as a rural area would. The urban site might use a green roof to control stormwater, while the rural site may use a stormwater pond. While it is a complex issue, through the efforts of local and state officials — as well as Virginia citizens — the state has developed a strong and successful program for controlling runoff in new development. We must continue this program implementation for new development while also implementing programs for existing development and stream restoration.
While such implementation programs may be expensive, they are necessary to comply with existing regulations. Fortunately, we already have a tool in place to make this happen: The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund. It is a state and local matching grant program that will help us protect the water we drink, the food we eat, and the rivers where we play. Over its lifespan, the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund has provided grants to 51 localities for 175 projects across Virginia. Unfortunately, the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session provided no funding for this program, despite the fact that requirements for stormwater compliance are ramping up. We must help local governments restore their waterways.
Local Case Studies
Each locality in Virginia has waterways that are in need of restoration. Many localities, as a part of their stormwater permits, have started taking steps to address the needs of their local streams.
The City of Lynchburg recently completed a bioretention project at Sheffield Elementary School, which drains to Rock Castle Creek. This project was partially funded by Virginia’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund. The project was carefully designed to not only provide the maximum water quality benefits, but to also hopefully provide the opportunity for students to have a meaningful watershed experience at their school, while promoting environmental literacy in an educational setting. Lynchburg has it right — the city knows there are multiple community benefits to clean water.
In the City of Virginia Beach, Mill Dam Creek was a highly polluted urban stream. It was restored in 2016 using Stormwater Local Assistance Fund dollars, which were matched by the City of Virginia Beach. Sediments that had accumulated for decades were dredged, wetland benches were built on both sides, and a buffer was designed and planted along the shoreline. These improvements have reduced sediments and nutrients flowing into Broad Bay and the Chesapeake Bay and have increased the ability of the creek to handle high flood waters, thereby better protecting nearby properties.
These two examples of projects funded by the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund show how stormwater solutions not only provide pollution reductions to local waterways, but can also provide additional benefits to their communities — beautifying public properties, educating the public, and helping protect everyone from flooding.
Each of us has a role to play in ensuring that we reverse the tide on polluted runoff going into our streams. After all, this is the water we drink and rely on daily. Localities have a role to play in restoring their local streams by developing and implementing programs and projects that will protect their waterways for generations to come.
Virginia’s legislators also have a starring role to play by providing reliable funding (at appropriate levels and times that match the increasing need) and by ensuring that existing stormwater programs remain strong. Virginia has goals to meet, and the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund is what will help us get there.
According to VIRGINIAforever, $50 million is required annually for the Commonwealth to keep up with its stormwater obligations. The Stormwater Local Assistance Fund is the perfect mechanism to provide these funds, and stable, consistent deposits will allow for great forward momentum towards meeting our restoration goals.
Adrienne Kotula | James River Association
Karen Forget | Lynnhaven River NOW
Monica Billger | Audubon Naturalist Society