Jun 10, 2022 - News

Richmond's $1 billion poop problem

Illustration of three droplets of water, with different emojis on them.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Richmond is still dumping an average of 1.9 billion gallons of stormwater mixed with raw sewage into the James River every year.

Why it matters: It's gross, bad for the river and tremendously expensive to fix.

  • The state has ordered the city to stop sewer overflows by 2035, something the city estimates will cost more than $1 billion.
  • Without more outside financial support, city officials say they'd need to increase residents' wastewater bills by more than 200% to an average of $2,500 per year to cover the cost.

Context: The city's 19th-century sewer system combines stormwater with sewage, which made a lot of sense when both were being dumped into the river anyway.

  • But now that the sewer is hooked up to a modern treatment plant, it can't handle all the stormwater that floods the system when it rains.
  • So the system empties the excess, dubbed "combined sewer overflow," into the river.

What they're saying: "There's been a lot of progress, but this combined sewer system is very large, very complex and very old," April Bingham, the director of public utilities, told Richmond City Council members during a meeting last week.

What's happening: City officials, miffed by the sometimes-harsh words state lawmakers have used to describe the problem, touted their progress so far during the meeting.

  • In the past few decades, the city has undertaken several projects to reduce the overflow, including a massive holding tunnel underneath Maymont big enough to drive a tractor trailer through.
  • They say they've managed to reduce annual overflow from 5 billion gallons annually in 1970, when the city began studying the problem, to 1.9 billion.
  • And Bingham rejected characterizations by state lawmakers of the outflow as 100% sewage, arguing waste makes up at most 10% of the fluid.

What's next: The city is working on a plan to meet the 2035 deadline, but Bingham said the city's success will ultimately depend on the state's willingness to help shoulder the cost.

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