During his first campaign for Mayor of the City of Richmond, Levar Stoney stated, “It is 2016, not 1816. We should not be worried about clean water for our citizens. This needs to be a public health and an environmental priority.” Mayor Stoney’s call-to-action refers to Richmond’s combined sewer system, archaic infrastructure that funneled 1.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater to the James River after significant rainfall events last year. Sewer systems that combine wastewater and stormwater into the same pipes are common in older cities across the United States. Richmond is one of three cities in Virginia with a combined sewer system. Alexandria and Lynchburg also have combined sewer systems and, like Richmond, are working to fix them. Richmond’s combined sewer system dates back to the late 1800s and serves roughly a third of the City. The other two thirds of the City are served by a separated system in which wastewater and stormwater are piped independently.
How do combined sewer systems work? During dry weather conditions, wastewater is piped to Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant to undergo treatment before returning to the James River. During wet weather conditions, stormwater enters the combined sewer system via storm drains. If stormwater overwhelms the system’s capacity, as it can after heavy rainfall, stormwater and wastewater create an overflow that directly feeds into the James River and Gillies Creek. The release of stormwater combined with untreated wastewater contributes to poor water quality and impairs recreational use of the river. While Richmond has made significant progress in reducing the frequency of combined sewer overflow events and amount of pollution entering the James River, these overflows still persist and need to be completely eliminated for the health of the river and the community.
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What’s the solution? In short, the solution to Richmond’s combined sewer system is a plan and money. The City is implementing its Long Term Control Plan and $315 million has been invested by the City and the Commonwealth of Virginia to date. More funding, possibly hundreds of millions of dollars, is needed to fully address combined sewer overflows. Senate Bill 1064 was passed by the General Assembly during the 2020 session and establishes a 15-year timeline for planning and project implementation to upgrade the combined sewer system. By bringing state and local officials together to address the issue, the James River Association is optimistic a combination of state and local funding can pay for projects that largely eliminate sewer overflows. Moving forward, city councilmembers and state legislators need to continue to hear from community members about the importance of this issue to ensure adequate funding is appropriated.
The following strategies can reduce the frequency of sewer overflows.
- Separating stormwater from wastewater. Keeping stormwater out of the combined sewer system can reduce the frequency of combined sewer overflows and Richmond has made progress separating its system. 21 of 46 combined sewer outfalls have been separated to date.
- Increasing storage capacity. Underground retention basins and storage tunnels like Richmond’s Shockoe Retention Basin and Hampton-McCloy Tunnel and can hold untreated wastewater and stormwater to give the wastewater treatment plant time to treat polluted water in the system. The Shockoe Retention Basin located on Chapel Island was constructed in 1983 and can hold 50 million gallons of wastewater and stormwater. The Hampton-McCloy Tunnel, an underground retention tunnel, was constructed in 2003 and can hold seven million gallons of wastewater and stormwater.
- Upgrading the wastewater treatment plant. In 1958, Richmond’s first wastewater treatment plant opened. The wastewater treatment plant has been upgraded since opening and will soon have the capacity to treat 140 million gallons of water per day. With increased wastewater treatment capacity comes fewer combined sewer overflows. Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant reduces the amount of nutrient, sediment, and bacteria pollution entering the James River.
- Installing green infrastructure. Installing green infrastructure, such as street trees, rain gardens, and bioretention areas, that absorbs rainfall and reduces the volume of stormwater entering the combined sewer system is a strategy for reducing combined sewer overflows. Numerous green infrastructure projects have been installed across the City and a city-wide green infrastructure planning process is underway.
- Educating the public and planning for the future. In 2014, Richmond launched the RVA H2O initiative with the goal of achieving “cleaner water faster” through outreach and education and by fostering stakeholder collaboration. The City released the RVA Clean Water Plan in 2017 and aligned the management of Richmond’s water systems under a single permit program for keeping the James River pollution free. Helping everyone understand what they can do to contribute to a healthy James River is critical. Richmonders can contribute to a healthy river at home by becoming a River Hero Home and joining the James River Association’s Action Network. Visit TheJamesRiver.org for more information.
Community Conservation Manager
Contact: email@example.com ; 804.788.8811, ext 212
Justin Doyle is the James River Association’s Community Conservation Manager. The James River Association’s Community Conservation Program promotes conservation and responsible stewardship of our natural resources and helps communities realize the benefits of a healthy James River.