RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday called for “historic” investments in a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, proposing a five-year plan that he said would represent the largest investment ever in Virginia’s water quality.
Northam (D) said his plan would help farmers as well as urban and suburban communities limit runoff that pollutes the bay, boost staff at the Department of Environmental Quality and add funding for land conservation.
“There is no time like the present to take action to ensure the protection of Virginia’s natural resources, and these historic investments will ensure that the Commonwealth honors its commitments to improve water quality and to protect the progress we’ve made on restoring the Chesapeake Bay,” Northam said in a statement.
The measures, which Northam will formally propose Tuesday in a speech to the General Assembly’s money committees, drew praise from environmentalists, who helped bankroll his 2017 bid for governor but have been bitterly disappointed by his handling of two natural gas pipelines being built in the state.
There was no sign that the governor’s bay cleanup plan would soften their take on the pipelines.
“I think our stance all along has been to kind of decouple those things, recognize progress when there’s progress,” said Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “There’s going to be areas where we disagree.”
Northam traveled to Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach to unveil the plan. It is part of a package of amendments that Northam is proposing for the second year of the two-year, $115 billion state budget. The legislature passed the original spending plan early this year for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Ahead of next week’s speech, Northam is expected to roll out several of his proposed amendments. He started Tuesday, with a plan to boost K-12 spending by nearly $269 million to increase teachers’ pay, school construction, per-pupil spending and programs for at-risk students.
A spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said he was not ready to weigh in on the environmental plan, noting that it was “just one piece of the broader package that we will consider as we put together our proposals.”
But Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-Stafford), chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, embraced it.
“I think this investment is long overdue, and I’ll do anything I can to see that this is accomplished,” Stuart said. “And that’s coming from a boy who was raised on a river that feeds into the bay.”
Northam ran for governor with strong backing from environmental groups such as the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which donated nearly $3 million to his campaign, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
But those onetime allies have slammed the governor for seeming to clear the way for two major gas pipelines being built across the state, the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline and the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The plan Northam rolled out Wednesday would increase funding for controlling agricultural runoff and other water-quality programs to $90 million a year and dedicate $50 million to a storm-water assistance fund that helps urban and suburban areas reduce pollution coming off parking lots, roads and other impervious surfaces.
He presented that spending as “first installments” on a five-year plan that would bring total water-quality spending to $773 million through 2024.
Northam also proposed adding $11 million for land conservation and $2.5 million to beef up staffing at the Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates and enforces the state’s environmental standards.