Category Archives: Water-waste water

The Saga of HB 1774 — Recurrent Flooding and Flooded Roads

by Carol J. Bova

HB 1774 was written to address rural stormwater issues and amended to study stormwater management practices in rural Virginia highway ditches. Why, then, does the bill direct the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency, a group formed to help Virginia adapt to recurrent flooding and sea-level rise, to direct the study?

The Commonwealth Center was created in 2016 to study strategies for adaptation, migration, and the prevention of recurrent flooding — deemed to be caused by global warming-induced sea-level rise — in Tidewater and Eastern Shore localities. As the adage goes, to a carpenter with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Assigning the study to the Commonwealth Center almost guarantees that HB 1774’s stormwater concerns will be viewed through the prism of sea-level rise and recurrent flooding. And that would be counterproductive because state road and ditch flooding have no connection to sea-level rise at all.

This misdirected idea comes from Lewis “Lewie” Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission (MPPDC) and the behind-the-scenes force behind HB 1774. Lawrence has doggedly insisted that Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) drainage failures in rural counties bordering the Chesapeake Bay, like my home county of Mathews, constitute recurrent flooding. Lawrence was instrumental in writing, and then revising, HB 1774 in close association with the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William & Mary Law School for Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, the bill’s sponsor.

Lawrence has inserted unsupported claims attributing flooding on VDOT roads to sea-level rise in at least nine MPPDC reports since 2009. In the first of these studies, which assessed the human and ecological impacts of sea-level rise upon vulnerable locations in the Middle Peninsula, he used maps indicating that one foot of sea-level rise by 2050 would inundate large portions of Middle Peninsula counties.

Those maps don’t stand up to scrutiny. In one of those reports, the 2050 map for Mathews County reports shows 6.7 miles of VDOT roads in inundated marsh and inland areas, yet fails to show the breach in the Winter Harbor barrier beach that left marshes open to the Bay since a 1978 April nor’easter.

Official projections of recurrent flooding from sea-level rise are based on maps with flawed elevation measurements.

Official projections of recurrent flooding from sea-level rise are based on maps with flawed elevation measurements.

Why is that significant? Because the Chesapeake Bay is connected to the ocean, it reflects the ocean’s high and low tides. The rise and fall of the tides varies from one location to another depending upon the depth of the water and the shape of the coastline, among other factors. Before the nor’easter, a narrow channel at the south end restricted the flow between the Bay and Winter Harbor. The breach in the barrier beach opened the marshes at the north end of Winter Harbor to the tides of the Chesapeake Bay.

The postulated 2050 inundation shown on the map is caused by one foot of sea level rise. But in real life, the daily high tides already run 1 ½ feet to 2 ½ feet, and storm-driven tides can add one or two feet more without having the depicted impact. Nearly three decades after the nor’easter, Hurricane Isabel did cause coastal and inland flooding, but its 7.9 feet of storm surge did not produce the degree of inundation shown for one foot of hypothetical sea level rise in the MPPDC’s map.

Another publication, a September 2016 MPPDC report for the Mathews County Planning Commission, references a 2013 MPPDC study done by Draper Aden Associates (DAA), the Mathews County Rural Ditch Enhancement Study, which said:

One of the primary results of the project was the reaffirmation that poor drainage due to lack of ditch maintenance and sea level rise compounds the flooding problems and flood management solutions utilized within Mathews County.

The supposed affirmation of sea level rise impact in the DAA study was based on flawed LiDAR-derived elevation numbers and an assumed 5-inch sea-level rise in 24 years extracted from the maximum estimate in a 2010 VIMS report to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. That VIMS report described “a total possible sea level rise of 0.12 to 0.22 inches per year in the Mathews County area,” or 3 to 5.6 mm a year. (My book, “Drowning a County,” uses 3.5 mm a year based on the Kiptopeke tide gauge trend of 3.48 mm since Mathews has no tide gauge.)

Draper Aden used 2011 Virginia Geographic Information Network LiDAR maps that show elevations of 2 feet for cultivated fields, forested areas, Route 645, and Gullwing Cove Lane — supposedly the same elevation as the marsh to the west. Yet, contrary to what one would expect from these elevations, normal high tides of two feet do not cause any movement of water from marshes and creeks into adjacent fields. Rather, fresh water floods across the roads because it is unable to flow through damaged or blocked VDOT pipes, ditches or outfall streams to nearby water bodies. Continue reading

Virginia’s Infrastructure Deficit

Virginia's infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

Virginia’s infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

I have often opined on Virginia’s hidden deficits — fiscal time bombs in the form of budgetary gimmicks, pension under-funding, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. These problems are national in scope, and Virginia has been somewhat less derelict in its duty than other states, but sooner or later the Old Dominion will have an ugly confrontation.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) rams home the message. The U.S. overall infrastructure rates a D+ rating. Virginia-specific infrastructure rates a C-. (For whatever reason the 2017 national report card links to the 2015 Virginia report card.)

Here’s a summary of the ASCE’s run-down of major infrastructure categories.

Bridges. Virginia has 20,977 bridges and culverts, and their overall health is in decline due to age and lack of funding. Fifty-six percent are approaching the end of their 40-year anticipated design life. Some 30% are more than 50 years old. In 2013, 23% were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  “Available funds are often used to address immediate repair or replacement needs, leaving few remaining funds for preventative maintenance. … The statistics indicate an impending peak of replacements which may be required within the next 10 years.”

Dams. Virginia’s dam inventory continues to grow older and more susceptible to damage. The majority were built in the 1950-75 era, and their average age is 50 years old. Of the state’s high-hazard dams, 45% have conditional certificates, indicating that they do not meet current safety standards. The rehabilitation cost for high- and significant-hazard dams is estimated to be $392 million.

Drinking water. Virginia has 2,830 public water systems supplying drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians. A large number of these systems have passed 70 years in age. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment showed that Virginia waterworks need nearly $6.1 billion over the next 20 years. “Deferral of the necessary improvements has worked so far, but can result in degraded water service, water quality violations, health issues, and higher costs in the future.”

Parks & recreation. Park attendance in Virginia is on the rise, and state parks are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation. The ASCE commentary vaguely states that “a lack of commitment to adequately fund and maintain our facilities will change things for future generations.”

Rail and transit. The report focuses mainly on the inadequacies of funding for passenger rail, which must share rail lines owned by railroad companies that give their own commercial traffic priority. Virginia did recently set up a Rail Enhancement Fund, and it created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, although it did not actually put any money into the latter. “The current funding is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rail and passenger service or to complete the much-needed rail infrastructure improvements and upgrades.”

Roads. The condition of Virginia roads is tolerable from a maintenance and safety standpoint, but traffic congestion in the Washington and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas has a huge negative economic impact. The average Washington-area commuter experiences 74 hours a year of delay. Despite an increase in transportation funding in 2013, “a network that has grown by 14% over the last 35 years and with every dollar buying less construction work, more funding is needed to maintain safe roadways while adding needed capacity, making this a  high priority for Virginia.”

Schools. More than 1,800 public school buildings serve Virginia’s K-12 students. A comprehensive 2013 analysis found that 60% of schools are at least 40 years old. Estimated renovation costs exceed $18 billion for schools more than 30 years old.

Solid waste. Virginia’s solid waste infrastructure is in “good” condition. Increased recycling, a reduction in out-of-state waste, and the addition of 11 additional waste facilities have increased the state’s capacity from 20 years to 22 years.

Stormwater. About one-third of Virginia’s stormwater infrastructure is more than 30 years old, and much of the remainder was built 25 to 30 years ago. Most stormwater infrastructure has a 50- to 100-year lifespan. But the ASCE report is not impressed. “There are shortcomings to address for state-level, standardized reporting, public education, and ensuring a dedicated source of funding commensurate with the economic benefits of a healthy Chesapeake Bay and Virginia ecosystems.”

Wastewater. Virginia has $6.8 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, a 45% increase from ASCE’s previous report card in 2009. That includes $1 billion for combined-sewer overflow, and much  more to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean water standards. “Virginia has made progress with considerable investments and has a comprehensive plan, but has tremendous challenges ahead.”

I don’t share the ASCE’s sense of urgency for every category. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, there are alternatives to building more road and transit projects: (1) reforming land use to provide a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities, and (2) accelerating the Uber-ization of ride sharing in order to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. I also question whether 40 years is an appropriate standard for rehabilitating or replacing school buildings. Clearly, many schools need rehabbing, but the study may overstate the number.

Even with these caveats, Virginia’s infrastructure deficit runs into the billions of dollars. And this analysis does not address recurrent flooding, an increasing problem in Hampton Roads. On top of all the other issues mentioned above, hardening the region’s infrastructure will cost billions of dollars of dollars more.

Update: Charles Marohn over at the Strong Towns blog eviscerates the ASCE report, which he describes as a “propaganda document.”

The reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Sixty years of unproductive infrastructure spending later, we are awash in maintenance liabilities with no money to pay for them. This is what happens when you have a government-subsidized, Ponzi-scheme growth system that, at all times, lives for the next transaction. America is all about new growth, which is why we don’t even bother to question the findings in a study like this.

The Saga of HB 1774 — Starting Over

Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, discusses VDOT ditch and outfall issues with G.C. Morrow in 2013.

By Carol J. Bova

In the second part of this series, I described how the General Assembly recognized intrinsic problems in HB 1774, a bill designed to remedy deficiencies in stormwater legislation enacted in 2016 and scheduled to go into effect July 1 this year. But instead of killing the bill, legislators passed a substitute.

That substitute, HB 1774 H1, turned from implementation to study, directing the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency to consider alternative methods of stormwater management in rural Tidewater localities.

By passing the substitute, the House and Senate delayed the effective date of the 2016 law and provided more time to work out problems that have come to light.

The Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William and Mary Law School will facilitate a work group for the HB 1774 study. This group will “include representatives from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Old Dominion University, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, local governments, environmental interests, private mitigation providers, the agriculture industry, the engineering and development communities, and other stakeholders as determined necessary.”

It seems rural residents didn’t make the A-list for this group. That’s a shame because citizen groups have studied water drainage issues in low-lying areas near the Chesapeake Bay, and they learned a few things that the experts overlook. Even the HB 1774 substitute, which aims to fix problems in the original HB 1774… which in turn was supposed to fix the 2016 law…  could turn out to be gravely flawed.

The revised HB 1774 changes the project area from six rural counties of the Middle Peninsula to the 29 counties and 17 cities of Virginia’s Tidewater. If the concept moves beyond the study stage, developers in ten urban counties — Arlington, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Hanover, Henrico, James City, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford, and York — will be able to buy stormwater credits generated by the rural Tidewater counties similar to the way developers can offset the impact of their projects by purchasing credits from a wetlands bank.

The “Tidewater” localities are outlined in red.

Nineteen counties have enough rural locations to establish Rural Development Growth areas along their state roads and highways if they agree to manage the new Regional Stormwater Best Practicies facilities (RSPs). In theory, these facilities will generate enough offset credits to let the RDGs use the current stormwater standards instead of the new, stricter standards, and still provide enough credits to sell to urban developers who need them. If the governor signs HB 2009, which passed the House and Senate, the localities could hire a third party to handle both the RSP management and credit sales on their behalf.


The original bill estimated the it would cost the Department of Environmental Quality $490,000 annually to hire staff to monitor the program for its first five years. But the bill provided no estimate of what expense localities would incur to administer the program, how much developers in urban counties might save, or how much income might be generated through the sale of credits. Presumably, the work group will address these issues. Continue reading

The Saga of HB 1774 — Rural Growth, Stormwater Credits

Del. Keith Hodges introducing a substitute for HB 1774.

By Carol J. Bova

Virginia’s part-time legislators saw 3,168 bills introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session according to the Richmond Sunlight website. Inundated with such a volume of legislation, overworked part-time lawmakers are hard-pressed to grind through complex issues.

In such circumstances, speeding bills through the legislature can lead to bad law. And that appears to have been the case with a bill, enacted in the 2016 session, that put into place stormwater management legislation due to go into effect July 1, 2017.

Alerted to deficiencies in that law, lawmakers took up the issue again in the 2017 session. The issues got so ticklish and hard to resolve that legislators threw up their hands and passed a bill that delayed implementation of the original law and gave them a year to reconcile the many conflicting interests.

Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, took the lead on updating the stormwater law this year. He submitted three interrelated bills, which he wrote with the assistance of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William and Mary Law School and the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. One of the bills, which allows jurisdictions to outsource administration of the stormwater law to third-party engineering firms, was uncontroversial and sailed through the House and Senate.

But the other two, HB 1774 and HB 2008, got tangled up in the legislative process. The main sticking point was how to deal with a loophole in the law going into effect in July that set different triggers at which counties had to put into place stormwater management programs. For most of the state, the regulations apply when a project disturbs 10,000 square feet of land up to one acre (at which point the Department of Environmental Quality steps in). But for the 29 counties and 17 cities defined in state law as “Tidewater,” which have the greatest potential to affect water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, the requirement kicked in at 2,500 square feet.

The Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), the lobbying arm of local governments, took the position that the 2,500-square-foot trigger was too onerous and described the closing of the “donut hole” — between 2,500 and 10,000 square feet — as one of its primary objectives of the 2017 session. HB 2008 would have accomplished precisely that.

However, at some point during the session, Hodges concluded that even the 10,000-square-feet trigger was too tough. Counties wanted out because they are not in the business of managing the erosion and stormwater impacts of land disturbance. They would have to add staff and find funding from already strained budgets. Counties with little new construction would not generate enough permit fees to offset the costs when they occurred, while even counties experiencing modest growth had no guarantee new fees would be sufficient.

Accordingly, Hodges withdrew HB 2008.

That left HB 1774 as the main vehicle for fixing the soon-to-be-enacted law. Like the Indian parable of several blind men trying to discern the nature of an elephant, the bill seemingly offered something to all the special interests involved in stormwater management:

  • New business opportunities for engineering firms — if there is a source of funding to create the stormwater management facilities.
  • Improved Chesapeake Bay water quality — if the new Regional Stormwater Best Practices facilities (RSPs), or stormwater banks, work as advertised. (See previous story for details.)
  • New rural economic development — if new RSPs actually do reduce costs for developers.
  • New income for localities from the sale of stormwater mitigation credits to developers — if there is an excess to sell and if there is water to treat in the first place.
  • Relief for the Virginia Department of Transportation of obligations for roadside drainage by transferring exclusive use of the water in its ditches to new stormwater management facilities — if the water remains in the ditches and if VDOT can ignore the rights of downstream parties to use of the water.
  • Administrative savings for DEQ — if localities agree to take over the stormwater management and if the 2% of fees paid by developers for excess credits offset the $490,000/year extra in salaries for monitoring.

It all works if the system has enough money. Trouble is, rural counties just aren’t experiencing the kind of population and commercial growth to generate the fees to make all these things happen.  The five-year census update estimate from the Weldon Cooper Center calls the premise into question.

Hamilton Lombard with Demographics Research Group at UVA said in the [email protected] blog :
“While population growth continues or accelerates in most of Virginia’s urban areas, much of rural Virginia will likely continue to experience slow population growth or decline during this decade.”

With all these problems, including the $2.45 million expense to hire DEQ employees to monitor the project, what happened to HB 1774? The House committee didn’t kill it. The legislators requested a substitute bill.

To be continued in Part Three — Starting Over

Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County: When urban myths destroy rural drainage,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its highway drainage in Mathews County.

The Sage of HB 1774 — Bills and Buzzwords

HB 1774 would give credits for projects using water from roadside drainage ditch like this one in Mathews County.

HB 1774 would give credits for projects using water from roadside drainage ditch like this one in Mathews County. Photo credit: The Ditches of Mattews County.

By Carol J. Bova

Virginia legislation usually follows a logical pattern in which bills lay out what they intend to do and the means by which their goals will be accomplished. This series looks at one bill introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session that missed the mark, morphing into a substitute bill that passed the House and Senate. The intentions behind it were honorable. The consequences, however, could be disastrous.

This is not an easy story to tell or to read. Like any mystery, only when all the pieces are laid out and examined will the background and details fit together to fill in the gaps. Even then, the final part of this story will take the next ten months to unfold.

This introduction in a series of four posts sets the stage and describes the contents of HB 1774. Part Two explores the problems in the original bill. Part Three looks at the surprising substitute bill. Part Four shows the mapping errors and assumptions that pointed lawmakers in the wrong direction.

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The requirements of last year’s stormwater management legislation, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2017, will be expensive and hard to incorporate into new developments in the Commonwealth. Many projects will need mitigation credits, which are scarce and in high demand.

Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, teamed up with the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William and Mary Law School and the Executive Director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission (MPPDC), Lewis Lawrence, to create legislation to alleviate the situation. MPPDC hired a consultant to assist in the work.

Under the combined banners of encouraging rural economic development, easing stormwater management requirements for new development, and creating more mitigation credits for both urban and rural projects, the team crafted HB 1774.

This plan would generate stormwater mitigation credits using new Regional Stormwater Practices (RSP) Banks. The Virginia Department of Transportation would give exclusive use of the water in its roadside ditches to an RSP bank to use in a bioretention or other BMP (Best Management Practice) to improve water quality in order to create the mitigation credits.

These credits would be applied first to Rural Development Growth ((RDG) areas along the highways adjacent to the banks, and excess credits would be sold to other developers.

Under the regulations scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2017, many rural localities chose to opt out of administering stormwater programs for new developments involving 10,000 square feet or one acre of land disturbance, and have the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) continue to administer the program as it had before the new legislation. (Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act areas had a lower threshold for the regulations, 2,500 square feet or one acre of land disturbance.)

Localities would receive fees to entice them into managing the new stormwater program for the RDG areas and overseeing the operation of the RSP banks. States the bill: “The fees for certain stormwater best management practices (BMPs) shall be paid directly to the locality.” From these fees, a locality would place 50 percent of the amount developers saved through the program into an account to operate the RSP bank. (Note: the bill is silent on who determines the fees or how the cost savings would be verified.)

There’s an additional provision for those localities with Chesapeake Bay Preservation areas–the State Water Control Board would authorize “any political subdivision of the Commonwealth that is located in Planning District 18 and is subject to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act … to designate a qualified entity to establish and administer an RSP bank.” This would include Middle Peninsula county governments, and MPPDC. If the Governor signs a related Hodges’ bill, HB 2055 which passed the House and Senate this session, the Rural Coastal Virginia Community Enhancement Authority would become a new political subdivision.

A private entity designated to operate an RSP bank would annually “return eight percent of the [mitigation] credit revenue it generates to the locality in which it is located and two percent” to DEQ.

To enable a private entity to do this, Del. Hodges introduced HB 2009 to allow administration of a stormwater management program by a certified third party. HB 2009 passed the House and Senate with ease.

To be continued in Part Two: Buzzwords and Bills–Donut Hole Defeat and a Second Chance for HB 1774

Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County: When urban myths destroy rural drainage,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its highway drainage in Mathews County.

Amidst Abundant Rain, Eastern Virginia Still Faces Water Shortages

Virginia's coastal plain aquifer system

Virginia’s coastal plain aquifer system

by James A. Bacon

After getting soaked with rain over the past two weeks, most Virginians would find it difficult to imagine that the Old Dominion could ever face a water shortage. But the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has been thinking beyond next week’s weather forecast, and while there are no immediate threats to the viability of Virginia’s water supply, the commission say that the long-term outlook in eastern Virginia is problematic.

The eastern, most populated portion of Virginia is heavily dependent upon a coastal plain aquifer system. Due to flat terrain and the omnipresence of wetlands, eastern Virginia is not topographically well suited to building water reservoirs. As a consequence, many water consumers rely upon well water.

At present small users (withdrawing less than 300,000 gallons per month) suck about 40 million gallons per day out of the aquifer system. Big users requiring permits are expected to withdraw between 43 and 58 million gallons per day. States JLARC in a new report, “Effectiveness of Virginia’s Water Resource Planning and Management“:

Assuming [the Department of Environmental Quality] achieves the proposed permit reductions it is currently negotiating and current reported withdrawals continue unchanged over the next few years, water levels are predicted to show only small declines and fall below regulatory minimum levels in only a few parts of the aquifer over 50 years. … Beyond the next few years, though, sustainability is tenuous and can be easily tipped out of balance. Potential growth in  both unpermitted and permitted withdrawals can easily push demand in excess of supply, leading again to unsustainable use.

While water shortages are unlikely in the next generation, the necessity to curtail major new water users is hampering economic development now. Difficulty in acquiring new permits will make it challenging for water-intensive industries to locate in eastern Virginia, states the report.

“About 85 percent of local economic developers responding to a JLARC survey reported that availability and affordability of water were important factors for at least one new project during the past three years,” the report says. Survey respondents told JLARC of three incidents in which projects did not materialize due to water permitting issues.

So, what’s to be done? Broadly speaking, JLARC identifies three strategies relevant to eastern Virginia: (1) conservation, (2) repair of leaky infrastructure, and (3) trading water.

Conservation. Conservation by existing users can postpone the need to spend billions of dollars developing new water supplies. Conservation measures can include installation of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, water-efficient landscaping and limits on landscape irrigation, rain harvesting, and tiered pricing structures that escalate charges for big users. Two paper mills — WestRock in West Point and International Paper in Franklin — account for nearly half of all coastal plain aquifer withdrawals. If the mills could find ways to cut water consumption, they could prolong the sustainability of the aquifer by many years.

Fixing water leaks. Local water supply plans report system losses ranging from 4% to 50%, depending upon the age of the infrastructure. JLARC cites two major public water suppliers in eastern Virginia which lost 15% and 17% of their water supply to leaks in 2011. Thanks to new technologies for monitoring water pipes, it is easier to identify leaks than ever. Water authorities across Virginia should be able to prioritize their maintenance spending to patch or replace the pipes with the worst leaks, deferring the need to spend billions of dollars on new capacity.

Groundwater trading. Groundwater trading is a market-based approach in which users buy and sell rights to groundwater consumption. Trading water rights would promote more efficient allocation of the scarce resource and would accommodate economic growth by allowing new users to access groundwater. However, there are prickly legal and philosophical issues associated with what amounts to converting a public resource into private property.

Unless Virginia can cobble together some combination of these solutions, we can expect water rates to rise in eastern Virginia as municipal and regional water authorities seek to ensure their long-term supplies. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), for instance, has begun studying an “aquifer injection” project that would inject about 120 million gallons per day of treated wastewater in the coastal aquifer, more than offsetting all current withdrawals. Among the benefits: reducing land subsidence that contributes to local flooding and reversing saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. However, the estimated price tag is hefty: about $1.2 billion in up-front capital and between $21 million to $43 milllion in annual operating costs.

JLARC urges legislators to tighten up standards for withdrawing water from the coastal aquifer, and capping the withdrawals that any single entity can make. Whatever the solution relied upon, Virginia needs to implement it soon. While water shortages may be decades away, the looming scarcity is affecting Virginia’s economic competitiveness today.

Petersburg’s Other Fiasco

petersburg_city_hall

Petersburg City Hall

by James A. Bacon

Poor Petersburg. The economically depressed Southside city of 32,000 serves as a vivid warning of just about everything that can go wrong for a local government in Virginia. Not only is the city running a massive General Fund budget deficit, it is falling millions of dollars behind in the collection of revenues for its water system.

The heart of the problem is a botched rollout of a meter-reading system that was pitched as a low-risk way for the city to overhaul its aging infrastructure without a tax increase. The city contracted with systems-controls giant Johnson Controls to install meters that would transmit usage figures electronically, obviating the need to send employees door to door to collect the numbers. Supposedly, the overhaul would pay for itself through more accurate readings and personnel reductions.

But something went wrong. First, the $3.9 million project experienced overruns of $1.4 million, bringing the final cost to $5.3 million. Second, it didn’t work properly. A year and a half later, surely enough time to work out the kinks, some people are reporting that they haven’t received water bills for months, while others say they have been billed too often, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.

City officials blame the vendor, Johnson Controls. Yesterday City Council voted to hire an outside attorney to pursue litigation against the company to seek remedy, and has asked for assistance from the Virginia State Police.

While it is possible that Johnson Controls bungled the installation of the meters (Full disclosure: I own 400 shares of Johnson Controls stock), the City of Petersburg’s track record and evidence in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s reporting of the story suggest that the city itself might have contributed to the problem.

First, the article mentions that more than a fifth of the cost overrun came from a $300,000 change order the year after the contract signed. No mention of whether there might have been other change orders.

Second, the contract was negotiated by then-City Manager William E. Johnson III, under whose watch the city’s General Fund plunged into such chaos that City Council fired him. If his oversight of city books was dismal, the same might well have been true for his oversight of the contract.

Third, it’s not clear from published accounts that the billing problem can even be traced to the meters. Meters report water usage; they do not send out billing statements. Perhaps the billing problem arose from the integration of the meters with the billing process. If so, responsibility gets murky. A successful launch of the system would have required collaboration between Johnson Controls and the city administration.

Fourth, Mayor W. Howard Myers admitted that he and other council members were unaware that the project had experienced cost overruns, or that city administrators had approved Johnson Controls’ work months after the system went live and residents had began complaining about faulty billing. This is the same mayor who declared, after being informed that the city had closed the year with a 20% deficit, “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from?” This is not a mayor who is on top of things, and if he blames the vendor for the mayhem, there is no reason to take his appraisal very seriously.

Fifth, in February, Myers hired Paul Goldman, law partner of former state Del. Joseph Morrissey, to investigate the matter at the rate of $330 per hour. But the city terminated the contract before Goldman could complete his job — more money down the drain. (I would conjecture that Goldman couldn’t finish the job because he found the matter to be an indecipherable morass that would take far more time than anyone had initially imagined.)

The business of government is complicated — and getting ever more so. I admire the everyday citizens who dedicate their time to running for office, helping constituents and overseeing government. They don’t get paid enough for what they do. But many of them, especially in smaller jurisdictions, are ill equipped to master the complexities of the job. Frankly, it’s a wonder we don’t see more fiascos like Petersburg’s.

Bikes, Bees, Beauty

lowline2

by James A. Bacon

New York City has its High Line park built upon an abandoned, elevated freight rail line. The City of Richmond has its Low Line park, built underneath CSX Corp. railroad trestles.

In the seven years since opening to great fanfare, Manhattan’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors and inspired the construction of nearly 1,400 housing units along its two-mile route. By contrast, the opening of Richmond’s Low Line has been decidedly low key, and no one is expecting it to become a magnet for real estate development. But the Low Line could well become an integral part of Richmond’s park system and spur reclamation of the riverfront.

The vision for the $6 million project calls for flower plots with benches, covered walkways beneath the trestles, rain gardens along the Kanawha Canal, and trees shading HOW MANY?? hundred yards of bike path. Capital Trees, a not-for-profit organized to promote urban greening, has committed to fund the ongoing maintenance.

A year ago, the area was an overgrown ruin, neglected by CSX and the City of Richmond, which shared ownership of the land for more than a century. Located in the flood plain, the property had little value. No one had reason to invest in it or even care about it.

“There was no advocate for this area. It was blighted,” says Susan Robertson, co-chair of Capital Trees. “People would ride on the canal boats from the manicured, renovated canal walk [in Shockoe Bottom] and encounter a scene with invasive weeds and trees. From June through November, you couldn’t see the canal [from the land].”

When the Low Line is complete, it will knit together a cluster of recreational assets including the Richmond terminus of the 52-mile Capital Trail, the Great Shiplock Park, the Kanawha Canal, and Chapel Island with its trails and kayak launch. The Low Line also will provide an amenity for the 1,500 residents of Tobacco Row apartments and condominiums on the far side of the flood wall.

“It’s so great,” Victoria Hedegger, a Tobacco Row resident, said recently while walking her new-born in a stroller. “It was nice before. Now it’s even nicer. [The gardens] make the trail so much more attractive.”

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Capital Trees originated as a collaboration between the Richmond region’s four garden clubs in the expectation that they could undertake projects with greater impact if they worked together. The new generation of garden club leaders aren’t content with traditional beautification projects. They are exploring the intersection of beautification, conservation, storm water management and urban place making.

In its early incarnation, the group worked with city officials to reform the urban tree-planting program. Then it spear-headed the building of rain gardens on 14th street in Richmond’s downtown to control storm water runoff. With each success, Capital Trees’ projects became more ambitious.

In 2011 Lynda Miller, head of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, visited Richmond to describe how volunteers had reclaimed part of Central Park. “She told use we could tackle big, important projects that can make our lives better, recalls Clare Osdene Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer active in the organization. Continue reading

Maryland Drops Coal Ash Appeal

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The state of Maryland has dropped its appeal of permits granted to Dominion Virginia Power for discharging treated water from its Possum Point Power Station coal ash ponds into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

“Maryland is supportive of recent agreements in Virginia to increase wastewater treatment protections and monitoring protocols,” Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said in a statement. “We are engaged in and encouraged by the ongoing discussions with Virginia and Dominion to do even more testing for fish tissue, water quality and sediment in the river beyond the current testing and monitoring in current or soon-to-be-proposed permits.”

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department, cited Dominion’s commitments to enhanced treatment of the water drawn from coal ash ponds and to specifications that meet or exceed Maryland’s water quality standards, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He continued:

Moreover, Virginia DEQ has pledged to draft a stringent and comprehensive solid waste permit for the Dominion facility that incorporates all federal requirements. Virginia DEQ has further discussed its intent to engage Maryland during this permitting process as groundwater monitoring and surface water monitoring safeguards are included to protect Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

The only group persisting in an appeal of the coal ash water-discharge permits is the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Bacon’s bottom line: The big remaining issue is how Dominion will dispose of the coal ash itself. Dominion has applied for permits to consolidate the material in capped pits on-site, asserting that the alternative preferred by environmentalists — trucking it to lined landfills — would cost $3 billion more. The statements from Maryland’s Department of the Environment suggests that Maryland has taken part in intensive, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Virginia DEQ, as Virginia regulators decide whether to grant the solid waste permits or not.

— JAB

Eb Tide for Bay Pollution

Ches_BayMeasures enacted since 2009 to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment have driven down the level of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, according to computer simulations by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of federal and state agencies and not-for-profits dedicated to cleaning up the bay. The results between 2009 and 2015: nitrogen down 8%, phosphorus down 20%, and sediment down 7%.

Practices are currently in place to achieve 31 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 48 percent of the sediment reductions necessary to attain applicable water quality standards as compared to 2009, the year before the Environmental Protection Agency established the Bay Total Maximum Daily Loads, states a Chesapeake Bay Program annual report.

“There is good news here,” responded Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker , “but a lot of work remains before we can declare success. Pollution continues to flow from those city streets and farms that do not have controls in place. And while improved, discharges of sewage to public waters continue in some jurisdictions.”

— JAB