Tangier Island sits alone near the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

There are days the James River flows clean and clear through Richmond. People flock to the rocks at Belle Isle to cool off. Kayakers surf the rapids downtown. Fishermen seek the big one around Rocketts Landing. You might even see a snorkeler exploring rocky river holes.

Old-timers recall a different James River of toxic spills, perpetually dirty water and fishery shutdowns. Even now, after heavy rains the James turns into a rushing torrent of chocolate milk, swollen with polluted runoff. Our city’s greatest asset becomes off-limits. It’s a reminder of how much the health of our waters affects us. While we can’t control the rain, we do know how to minimize the polluted runoff that harms the James River and water downstream in the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia has a track record of successful projects that control pollution to its rivers and streams.

But there’s no doubt that we’ve still got a long way to go. A new Chesapeake Bay Foundation report finds that work to reduce pollution in Virginia’s rivers and the bay must be accelerated. We fully agree with the recent Times-Dispatch editorial that “the costs of restoring the bay to health are well worth it.”

Right now is a pivotal time as Virginia completes the final phase of a long-standing plan that will help ensure more beautiful days on the water. Virginia’s Clean Water Blueprint has been years in the making. Building on community input from across the region, the blueprint is the linchpin in a long-term effort by bay states and the federal government to complete by 2025 the practices that ultimately will restore our waters.

State leaders recently released a draft of the final update to Virginia’s blueprint, technically called the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan. This plan outlines the actions needed to meet Virginia’s 2025 goals.

This plan relies on expanding existing successful programs, as well as new initiatives. Its implementation would lead to remarkable improvements in the health of all the waterways in Virginia’s bay watershed. Other benefits follow for public health, local economies and preventing flooding.

But the blueprint isn’t yet complete. It will be influenced by response from the public during a comment period open until June 7. Everyone in Virginia can help by letting our leaders know that the final plan must be as strong as possible.

The blueprint is comprehensive and fair. It calls for all of us to pitch in, from industries to towns and cities to farmers and homeowners.

Our hardworking agricultural communities will be asked to keep livestock out of all permanent streams, follow science-based plans to reduce pollution from most cropland, and similar steps that lead to healthy soil and waterways.

In more developed areas, the blueprint supports key programs that manage polluted runoff, protects sensitive shorelines of rivers and streams, and includes measures to stop pollution from improperly applied lawn fertilizer.

Sewage treatment plant upgrades already have made a huge difference in reducing pollution to Virginia’s rivers. The blueprint aims to ensure that we continue progress by continuing this work, ensuring that plants across the watershed are all achieving excellent results.

The blueprint establishes Virginia as regional leader in recognizing that climate change and extreme weather are making it harder to reduce pollution. We must tackle this growing threat now before it’s too late.

When our region first embarked on efforts to clean up the bay and its rivers decades ago, some said it would be too hard, too expensive or just wouldn’t work. Since then, the James River has gone from a polluted disaster to the jewel of Richmond. Farther downstream, underwater grasses are hitting record levels and blue crab numbers are on the rise.

These proposals show that fully restoring our waterways is finally within reach.

Nearly everything achieved so far has depended on federal, state and local investments. In the coming years, increased investments in these proven efforts are the only way we’ll have success.

It also makes financial sense. Fully implementing the blueprint will result in $8.3 billion annually in additional benefits from nature in Virginia, according to a peer-reviewed economic report, encompassing rising real estate values, tourism and recreation, the seafood industry and more.

With a great plan in front of us, we have the chance to make history. Now is the time to urge our elected leaders to implement a strong final blueprint and ensure that future generations enjoy all the benefits of clean water.

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Rebecca Tomazin is the Virginia executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Contact her at rtomazin@cbf.org.

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