McDonnell proposes $40 million to help clean up RVA’s wastewater system

For over 30 years, Richmond has been working to minimize the amount of untreated wastewater that seeps into the James. Gov. McDonnell’s recent proposal of $40 million may go a long way to help.

Last week, Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed amendments to Virginia’s 2012-2014 budget that included a $40 million project bond for Richmond to support the City’s longstanding efforts to improve its combined sewage system and reduce its combined sewage overflow (CSO) along the James River.

Richmond pipes collect both sewage (or wastewater) and stormwater runoff together. CSO occurs when both untreated wastewater and stormwater leave the sewage system–typically due to heavy rain–and empty into the environment. In Richmond, there are 29 CSO locations across the city, most scattered along the James River. The City’s CSO system is the largest in Virginia, spanning roughly 12,000 acres, prompting some to ask, why did the City design a sewage system that deliberately pours untreated water into the James?

Director of the Department of Public Utilities, Robert Steidel, said that, in the 1800s, sewage was a chief concern of public health. “Take sewage and get it out of the city and put it into the river as fast as possible” was the prevailing notion at that time, Steidel said. Furthermore, many believed there were no environmental consequences from doing this.1

However, in the 1950s, American cities began installing sewage treatment plants to combat water pollution as they started to understand the hazards of CSO. Richmond opened its own plant in 1958.

Even though the plant treats up to 70 million gallons of water each day, Steidel said it’s common that “storm water mixes with sewage,” especially during periods of prolonged and heavy rain. When the amount of water flow exceeds the capacity of the treatment plant, untreated water “goes out into the river.”

To help relieve the problem, in 1983 the City completed construction of the Shockoe Retention Basin near the 14th Street Bridge, which can prevent up to 44 million gallons of untreated water from entering the James. But rains can still overmatch the City’s sewage capacity, causing pollutants to spill into the river.

Steidel said the City has already spent about $250 million over many years as a result of the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. Richmond has updated its existing CSO system, including the use of green infrastructure, to reduce pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus that accumulate in CSO pipes from leaking out into the James. While rainwater does naturally diminish the potency of these and other pollutants, thereby minimizing harm to public health,2 Steidel said the City is working to eliminate all CSO pollutants from entering the James.

Currently, most CSO outflow locations that are more environmentally-controlled are on the western side of the city (pdf).3 That’s deliberate, Steidel said, because those overflow locations are “where most people use the river most of the time.” He said the City is currently working eastward to control overflows.

Steidel said the $40 million proposed by Gov. McDonnell to aid in overhauling the system is greatly appreciated and will support the City’s efforts. “We’re going to get a big bang for the buck,” he said.

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  1. The Environmental Protection Agency has a good paper (pdf) on the history and potential ramifications of CSO. 
  2. The public can subscribe to CSO advisories via email notification, or by calling 804.646.6198. 
  3. September 2012 is the most current overflow map available online. 

photo by sdreelin

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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