Great Blue Heron

A great blue heron stood silently perched to catch a fish under the din of traffic on the Falmouth bridge near the Rappahannock River. Virginia ranks 47th out of 50 states in budgeting for protection and enhancement of natural resources.

From the towering Appalachian Mountains to the delicate ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay, the commonwealth of Virginia represents one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes on the East Coast. But, our natural environment is more than these iconic landscapes. We experience it every day, from walking our kids to the neighborhood park or enjoying a glass of water. Virginia’s natural resources are such crucial pieces of our everyday lives, the protection and restoration of the environment is built into our Virginia Constitution. It is a core value of the commonwealth. All our shared values such as our environment, should be weaved throughout Virginia’s public policy, especially our biennial budget.

Virginia ranks 47th in budgeting for the protection and enhancement of our natural resources, less than 1% of the general fund. This lack of investment is particularly concerning in light of the many environmental rollbacks and budget cuts from the Trump administration — including efforts to water down the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and defund initiatives such as the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Gov. Ralph Northam made a bold commitment to ensure Virginia remains a backstop against these threats and becomes a leader in natural resources protection by increasing Virginia’s investment in its natural resources to 2% of the general fund. The crafting of the 2020-2022 budget is his opportunity to achieve this ambitious but much-needed goal. By investing the resources needed to ensure every Virginian has access to clean air, clean water and our natural landscapes, the governor can fulfill this commitment. The conservation community has laid out a pathway that ensures the governor’s budget reflects our shared priorities.

This summer, the Northam administration released the third and final plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. This plan is the most comprehensive and ambitious we’ve seen to date and will need full investment to successfully implement. This investment should include giving farmers the tools they need to protect our rivers and streams through fully funding the Virginia Agriculture Cost Share Program; providing localities the resources needed to reduce runoff pollution through the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund; and adequate funding to upgrade wastewater treatment plants.

The governor has also prioritized identifying and protecting high-value landscapes. Full funding for Virginia’s highly successful Land Conservation Grants program is critical to protect our farmlands, forests, habitats, viewsheds and cultural resources. In addition, full agency funding for the Department of Conservation and Recreation can help protect these areas while also promoting, providing access to and creating long-term protection of Virginia’s parks, trails, and outdoors.

Virginia’s coastal communities are among the most susceptible areas to sea-level rise in the nation. In a demonstration of the governor’s commitment to protecting these communities, Northam recruited the first-ever Special Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Adaptation. Matching this with first-time investments in the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund is critical to help those along our coast adapt to climate change. Support for energy efficiency and clean energy programs, along with increasing investments in public transportation, can move Virginia to the forefront of climate leadership.

Many of these goals cannot be fully realized without modernizing and enhancing the Department of Environmental Quality — as called for in a recent report from Natural Resources Secretary Matthew Strickler. Restoring full funding for the agency is imperative to ensure DEQ has the resources and staffing needed to fully monitor current permits; engage all communities — particularly those most impacted and vulnerable — in the permitting process; and increase environmental standards in light of rollbacks at the federal level. Additionally, funding for the Environmental Justice Council is needed to engage all communities.

To meet these funding goals, the conservation community recognizes that the governor might need to look toward new revenue sources. The conservation community supports efforts to identify revenue sources that will be permanently dedicated to protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and natural places all Virginians love. We look forward to working with the governor to find a solution that provides these critical funds and achieves his vision of a clean and healthy environment.

It is imperative that all levels of government step up to protect our natural resources. We are grateful for bipartisan support from Virginia’s congressional delegation to support funding for core environmental programs. This fall we look to the governor to fulfill his promise to invest the resources we need to protect our air, water and natural places.

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Mary Rafferty is the executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact her at mary@vcnva.org.

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