Unhappy with Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget, Chesapeake Bay advocates have renewed their call for a $300 million bond package to clean up the beleaguered estuary.
“It certainly would signal that the McDonnell administration is making bay restoration a priority,” said Ann Jennings, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office.
The bond package — essentially, taking on long-term debt — would offset the $359 million in requests the state Department of Environmental Quality expects to receive to help pay for wastewater treatment plant upgrades during the next decade.
The upgrades will help Virginia meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new plan for the bay, which aims to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment discharges by 25 percent over the next 14 years. The pollution, which comes from agricultural, industrial and municipal sources, fouls the bay’s water, leading to fish kills, beach closures and other problems.
If the state doesn’t issue bonds, local sewer districts and other municipal powers may raise utility rates, Jennings said. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District, which supports the bond package, has warned of annual rate increases for the next 20 years.
Using bonds to pay for infrastructure projects is not uncommon — McDonnell earlier this year set aside about $4 billion in bonds for transportation work. He pitched the plan, in part, on low interest rates and jobs the work will create.
Jennings made the same argument for bay restoration bonds and said McDonnell’s predecessor, Democrat Gov. Tim Kaine, approved $250 million in bonds in 2007 for the same purpose.
But convincing McDonnell, who did not include the bond package in his budget despite requests last month from the foundation and others, won’t be as easy. The Republican governor has clashed with the federal EPA over bay restoration and he is looking for ways to curb spending so he can funnel money into Virginia’s retirement system, higher education and other priorities.
He set aside roughly $50 million for the bay during the next two years, a figure McDonnell spokeswoman Taylor Thornley described in an email as “adequate.” She declined to specifically answer questions about issuing bonds for bay restoration.
Jennings said the foundation will continue to work with McDonnell and the General Assembly. But it will do so without the help of three bay advocates — Del. Harvey B. Morgan, R-Gloucester, state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington, and Del. Albert C. Pollard, Jr., D-Lively — who did not seek re-election this past fall.