In 1963, an editorial in the Richmond News-Leader lamented the fetid state of the lower James River.
“The odor of sewage and of things long dead clutches at the nostrils. ... Our river is a sewer,” the writers opined, according to a reading by James Golden, director of operations at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Friday at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
Golden was among the officials on hand to celebrate $120 million in upgrades to the plant over the past decade that, combined with a push to uncouple the city’s ancient combined sewage and stormwater pipes, have helped transform the river from a liability into one of the city’s chief assets.
“Let’s continue to treat it like the jewel that it is,” Mayor Levar Stoney told the assemblage of city officials, utility workers and others. “It’s a proud jewel to wear in our crown as the capital city of the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Since 2010, the wastewater treatment plant, near Ancarrow’s Landing on the south bank of the James, has cut its nitrogen releases by about 86 percent and its phosphorus releases by about 45 percent.
Both types of discharges can create algal blooms that rob water of oxygen and were a major factor in the decline of the Chesapeake Bay. Upgrading wastewater treatment plants like Richmond’s to reduce the amount of nutrients they put into waterways that feed into the bay has been a major factor in the resurgence of marine grasses, crabs, fish and oysters over the past several years.
“Cleaning up local rivers and streams reduces risks to human health, creates jobs, and benefits local economies,” Peggy Sanner, an assistant director for Virginia at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement. “Richmond’s clean-water efforts are truly making a difference in the health of the James River and Chesapeake Bay. Cutting this much pollution from Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant helps keep Virginia on track to meet its goals under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.”
In 2010, when states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, in conjunction with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, agreed to set a “pollution diet” for the bay, Richmond’s plant exceeded its pollution limits to a larger degree than any other facility in the state, said Bill Street, CEO of the nonprofit James River Association.
“In 2016, it was the most under its pollution limit in the whole state,” Street said. “That’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
That achievement has come with much work and a hefty bill split by state and local government and city ratepayers.
Since 2005, the state has invested about $900 million in upgrading wastewater treatment plants, Street said.
“The benefit to the James River is tremendous,” he said. “Since 1985, nitrogen levels have fallen 60 percent and phosphorus levels have fallen 80 percent.”
Robert Steidel, the city’s director of public utilities, gave much of the credit to city dwellers, who pay the highest wastewater fees in the state.
“I believe in taking those fees and doing exactly what the citizens expect us to do to have the cleanest possible river through the application of their dollars,” he said.
The work on the plant encompassed in the $120 million figure started in 2009 with the addition of ferric chloride chemical storage and metering pump feed systems to the plant’s sedimentation tanks, methanol storage tanks, metering pumps, and controls and filter upgrades.
In 2010, the plant added a new ultraviolet light disinfection facility to replace the former chlorine gas system and power upgrades that cost nearly $22 million. Latter phases included constructing new “scum collection troughs” and odor controls, aeration equipment upgrades and new sedimentation tanks, among others.
About $50.1 million of the price tag came from a Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund grant. Another $55.3 million came from the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, which offers interest-free loans. The city provided about $14.6 million for the project.
But upgrading the treatment plant is only part of the equation.
“We still have work to do,” said Street, who noted that the James River Association’s monitoring station near Rocketts Landing found that bacteria levels in the area were above state safety thresholds for about half of the weekends last summer.
That’s not because of the treatment plant, but as a result of discharges of untreated waste when, as result of lingering portions of the city’s combined sewer and stormwater systems, heavy rains overwhelm the plant.
Richmond is not the only city with a combined sewer system — Lynchburg and Alexandria have them, too — but it is the largest.
Despite spending approaching $370 million since 1991, most of which has been paid by city utility customers, the utilities department is still working to reduce the amount of untreated sewage that makes it into the James. In 2015, the city recorded nearly 2.7 billion gallons of combined sewer overflow.
Though all of the separation of lines that will take place is complete, the city is still working to build capacity to process more wastewater during heavy rain.
The city’s 50 million gallon retention basin and two tunnels that together can hold another 10 million gallons were filled in about 10 minutes by Friday morning’s rainfall, Steidel noted.
“It just takes time to rebuild a city from underneath,” Steidel said.