Virginia Water Board Approves Plan to Keep Sewage from James River
The Virginia State Water Control Board earlier this week approved the third and final phase of a sewer upgrade for Richmond aimed at stopping sewage overflows from reaching the James River.
The city of Richmond already has spent about $242 million on its sewer upgrade, and this newest project will cost $250 million to $300 million over roughly 12 to 20 years.
Raw sewage used to spill into the James River during rains, but the upgrade has cut that down to only four times a year or less, and only after hurricanes or huge storms.
"The park areas along the James are now virtually clean," said Gerard Seeley Jr., director of the state Department of Environmental Quality's Richmond region.
Seeley spoke before the Virginia State Water Control Board, which approved an agreement with the city that spells out how the cleanup will proceed.
The new agreement calls for Richmond to increase its sewer rates. Most homeowners will see a climb from roughly $34 a month to about $36.50 in five years, said Bob Steidel, Richmond's deputy director of public utilities. That is added to the water bill, which typically runs about $22.
"People want clean water, and that's what the city is in the business of doing, giving them clean water," Steidel said.
While the city was able to get some grant money, most of the funds for the past projects have come from the city's sewer customers.
The city hopes to get grants for the newest project, but by using mostly city money, Richmond has been able to reduce its pollution faster than many cities its size with similar problems, Seeley said.
Richmond's sewer system was built in the 1880s and combined water that flowed into storm drains during rains with everyday sewage.
Until the 1950s when the city built a sewage plant, all that waste flowed into the James River. Big storms often caused much of the raw sewage to overflow into the river through more than two dozen outlets.
Pressure from federal and state officials prompted Richmond to improve its system, beginning in the 1980s with the creation of the Shockoe retention basin, which can hold 50 million gallons of storm and sewage waste before allowing it reaches the James. A second phase installed pipes along both banks of the James west of the I-95 bridge to send dirty stormwater to a treatment plant.
The new phase will catch some stormwater below the bridge, install a system to disinfect the waste that overflows the Shockoe basin and improve the treatment plant so it can handle more of the dirty water.