The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Valley residents’ sewer bills will see effects of water quality rules; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

It’s about to get more expensive to flush the toilet in the Shenandoah Valley.

The last round of water quality regulations designed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay won approval from the State Water Control Board on Monday, and were announced by Gov. Mark R. Warner from Richmond.

Under the new rules, wastewater treatment plants will be required to remove all but 3 milligrams of nitrogen compounds and 0.3 milligrams of phosphorus compounds from every liter of water that leaves the plant.

While this round of rule-making announced Monday covers only the James and York rivers and their tributaries, a set of rules that took effect last week applies the same standards to the Shenandoah and the Potomac.

It also rations the total amount of the nutrients that can be dumped from each plant, regardless of how much water flows through or how many new houses are added to an area.

At the end of the day, it’s going to cost valley residents a lot of money, according to sewage treatment plant operators.

“The day of the $15 a month sewer bill is soon ending, I’m afraid,” said Rodney McClain, general manager of the Toms Brook-Maurertown Sanitary District.

The district operates the 600,000 gallon per day Stony Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, one of five in Shenandoah County that will have to be upgraded in the coming years.

Warner made no bones about the new rules — they’re tough, but the burden of implementing them won’t be placed solely on localities.

“These new regulations are the most strict in the nation — and coupled with historic investments this year, and significant new funding I will announce in the coming weeks — establish Virginia as the national leader in the effort to restore the bay and improve overall water quality by the agreed-upon deadline of 2010,” Warner said.

Legislators put $80 million into the fund last year.

Plant operators said they hope there’s a lot more money where that came from.

“It’s going to be a quantum leap in the treatment capabilities and the requirements that wastewater plants are going to have to meet,” McClain said.

The rule of thumb used by some plants to estimate how much the upgrades — which have to be in place in about four years — will cost is about $10 for every gallon of capacity.

For Shenandoah’s Stony Creek plant, that’s about $6 million. Previous upgrades using other technology have cost anywhere from $3 to $5 per gallon of capacity.

There’s no doubt who will wind up paying the bill, according to Jesse Moffett, executive director of the Winchester Frederick Service Authority, which owns the Parkins Mill and Opequon wastewater plants.

“In my case, I’m a wholesaler, so I only bill two parties, the city [of Winchester] and the [Frederick County] Sanitation Authority,” he said.

But “if everybody is agreeable to expansions or upgrading the facilities — which is going to have to happen — the bill is going to be passed on to the customer that’s using the service,” he said.

Service Authority plants already use bacteria to remove nutrients from the water, and on average get all but 5 mg per liter, he said.

That changes depending on the weather, Moffett said. Colder weather makes the process much less efficient.

“The concern I think everybody is going to have is in the winter months is if we’re going to be able to accomplish those numbers,” he said. “So we’re just going to have to do better in the summer.”

Federal and state sources have helped pay for such projects in the past, but with so many projects requiring funds at one time, it may be impossible to throw enough money at the problem.

“There’s only so many contractors that can handle projects of this size,” Moffett said.

He said he hopes the plants will be able to get some help in meeting their numbers by pursuing “non-point source” nutrients, like urban and farm runoff.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has said plants can get credit for offsets like taking farmland out of production, which would be added to their total allocations.

Expensive as it will be, there is support for a cleaner bay.

“If you take a poll and say, ‘Hey, do you think it’s a good idea to save the Chesapeake Bay?’ you’re going to have 87 percent say ‘Yeah, by God, that’s a good idea. We like our steamed crabs,” McClain said.

“This is what it’s going to cost,” he said.