The City of Lynchburg has been working toward a long-term fix for its sewage overflows since the 1970s, and with a recent ask for $50 million in federal emergency aid from Gov. Ralph Northam, the end may be in sight.
The request is part of a $1.4 billion package for ending combined sewer overflows in three cities — Lynchburg, Richmond and Alexandria — with money from the American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed into law March 11.
Lynchburg, Richmond and Alexandria are the only three communities in the state with ongoing costly combined sewer overflow (CSO) projects, according to a letter signed by Lynchburg Mayor MaryJane Dolan, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and John Hill, chairman of Alexandria Renew Enterprises, and sent to Northam last month.
In its totality, Lynchburg’s CSO project is estimated at $350 million. To date, about $300 million has been spent, with about $50 million left before the project’s completion.
The city’s combined sewer overflow infrastructure dates back to the mid-1800s, covering about 6,000 acres of the city. By 2021, with mapping work that began in the 1970s and a plan created in 1989, the city has closed 115 of 132 overflow outfalls.
Tim Mitchell, director of the Lynchburg Department of Water Resources, said overflow sites initially were created to allow “a relief point in the system,” but heavy rains triggered overflows that drained the combined raw sewage and stormwater into tributaries and streams, ultimately affecting the James River.
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, he said Lynchburg was discharging more than a billion gallons of combined sewage out of the century-old wastewater pipes, annually.
To date, the city has eliminated 93% of its combined sewage volume, through both separation or capture for treatment, and doubled the “wet water capacity” of its wastewater treatment plant.
Now, the program has reached the final stretch.
If the city receives the requested $50 million in ARPA funds, it can address the remaining projects and complete the program within the next five years.
When the department finishes the program, he said it will have eliminated more than 95% of the city’s overflow, and continue to reduce the frequency and volume, as well as capturing more trash and debris that gets into the system.
With additional storage capacity in sewer lines and greater ability to treat wastewater, it will improve city water quality and meet necessary environmental standards.
The ARPA funding also would free up money to address the other needs in the sewer system, separate from CSO projects, according to Mitchell, and would work to keep rates low for city customers.
Lynchburg is facing significant infrastructure challenges with aging water and sewer systems and hundreds of miles of the city’s lines are more than 100 years old. It is estimated during the next 20 years, the city needs to invest nearly $500 million in water and sewer infrastructure.
Interim City Manager Reid Wodicka said the city likely will begin discussing these future infrastructure plans this fall.
According to the letter, for the past 30 years, Lynchburg has had among the highest annual sewer rates in Virginia, with more than 4,252 households, or 24%, with sewer bills exceeding 4% of their household income, with many of these households being minority areas in the city.
If the city does not receive the funding, Mitchell anticipates completion would take another 10 years.
“It’s been a very high priority for the city for many, many years, and we are very proud of the program we’ve made, but we’re anxious to get it complete,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said how much funding the localities receive is dependent on a special session of General Assembly, which will convene Aug. 2, to determine how to use the billions of dollars of federal aid.
Wodicka said he hopes to see the funding become available, and said the city has been a leader in addressing its CSO issues, and this is “another example of how we feel very strongly that this is an opportunity to make those investments where it’s necessary.”
While CSO is only one component of Lynchburg’s expansive water and sewer infrastructure, its long been a priority of the department.
“We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to improve the water quality in the James River, and also the tributaries and streams in Lynchburg, itself,” Mitchell said. “This is key to doing that.”
In addition to Lynchburg, Richmond seeks $883 million and Alexandria seeks $500 million to complete work on their combined sewer systems without overwhelming their local utility ratepayers or exceeding their debt limits.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch contributed to this report.