HD13 - A Study on Virginia’s Drinking Water Infrastructure and Oversight of the Drinking Water Program (HJR 92, 2020)

Executive Summary:

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH), Office of Drinking Water (ODW) protects public health through its oversight of Virginia’s drinking water program. ODW regulates 2,811 waterworks in the Commonwealth of Virginia, collectively serving approximately 7.5 million consumers--about 89% of the Commonwealth’s total population. The drinking water program is vital. Safe and adequate drinking water directly influences community health and economic prosperity. Businesses use drinking water every day for processing, cooling, and product manufacturing. New businesses need drinking water to serve communities. Although Virginia’s drinking water is among the safest and most reliable in the world, several case studies offered in this report serve as reminders of the importance of capital improvements and asset management to address aging infrastructure.

ODW collaborates with owners, operators, and stakeholders to protect public health and the environment. ODW ensures compliance with applicable laws and regulations by conducting sanitary surveys and inspections; providing training and technical assistance; issuing permits and plan approvals; tracking compliance monitoring; managing data and information; training licensed operators; and where appropriate, taking enforcement actions and offering low interest loans. Virginia’s drinking water program protects public health from “source to tap" by assessing the vulnerability of water sources and preparing communities for resilient response to natural and manmade hazards. ODW’s program has high compliance rates with water quality standards. Core metrics for the program include the percent of waterworks with an unresolved health-based violation (less than 2%), the percent of waterworks that sample on time (better than 98%), and the percent of waterworks inspected on time (over 99%).

Climate change can impact availability of water and water quality in Virginia. More intense weather can cause more severe droughts or worsening run-off, both adversely affecting water quality and quantity. Good water infrastructure and planning creates resilience to combat the effects of climate change and ensure public health and safety. Old and unmaintained water infrastructure leaks can allow contaminants to enter the drinking water supply with weak pressure. Significant leaks also reduce revenues and unnecessarily deplete aquifers and surface water sources affected by climate change.

During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, ODW actively monitored and helped waterworks, focusing on community waterworks. ODW encouraged and promoted water shut-off moratoriums to ensure citizens had access to drinking water, essential in the pandemic fight to keep surfaces clean and for personal hygiene. ODW also established guidance to ensure essential staff, such as licensed operators and maintenance workers, were available and had sufficient policies in place to protect drinking water. ODW worked with stakeholders to ensure minimal impacts to waterworks during the pandemic. The pandemic highlighted the critical importance of the drinking water program’s sustainability and resiliency.

In 2015, EPA estimated Virginia had an $8.135 billion need over the next 20 years at its 1,100 community waterworks, which represented an 8% increase from EPA’s last assessment in 2011. EPA’s assessment suggests Virginia has a $407 million annual average of water infrastructure need. EPA is currently updating its 2015 needs assessment. One tool Virginia has to address infrastructure need is the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), a federal grant program that funds construction projects at waterworks. Virginia must provide a 20% match, and combined with interest and principal repayments, ODW can offer about $22.5 million per year to support waterworks infrastructure funding in small and disadvantaged communities. ODW offers construction loans below private market rates and can oftentimes provide funding when a small or disadvantaged community cannot get funding in the private marketplace. In addition, research shows that each $1 of DWSRF investment in water infrastructure provides almost $3 in economic benefit. Adding one job in the water sector creates an estimated 3.68 jobs in the local economy to support that job.(*1) Non-economic benefits include public confidence in the drinking water supply and safety, which promotes health and financial stability as citizens look for options other than sugary beverages and more expensive bottled water.

Lead in drinking water is a risk to public health. There is no safe level of lead consumption. Several communities in Virginia receive DWSRF benefits through the lead service line replacement (LSLR) program. ODW has awarded $3.69 million for eight projects in four localities over the past several years using DWSRF funding. Alexandria, Henry County, Richmond, and Chesapeake all received help to replace lead service lines. Other communities are also seeking help with LSLR, but there is limited federal funding and no dedicated state funding to more proactively remove lead service lines.

The Public Water System Supervision (PWSS) program, funded by another federal grant, provides about $2.1 million in funding each year, with a 25% state match. The PWSS grant primarily funds staffing needs to oversee waterworks. Operation fees that community and nontransient noncommunity waterworks pay annually provide approximately $4.8 million per year in additional support to program. Over the past three years, the drinking water program’s operating budget has remained flat while expenses have increased, creating a funding need for the program.

More funding would ensure a robust program in Virginia. As of October 2020, ODW had two vacancies. ODW currently has 119 full time employees (including two vacancies) budgeted for FY 2021. ODW estimates it needs more funding for operations to implement core federal grant programs to maintain primacy. However, because of funding concerns, ODW has instituted a hiring freeze on critical positions. The DWSRF grant allows up to 32% of funding to go towards “set-aside" programs. These set-asides provide significant funding for ODW programs. With the PWSS and operation fee funding flat over several years,(*2) ODW has increasingly relied on the set-aside funds under the DWSRF to support staff positions and operations.

Lead sampling and legionella in schools, harmful algal blooms, injection of highly treated wastewater into drinking water aquifers, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and various responses for coal ash disposal and planned natural gas pipelines stress limited resources required to operate the drinking water program. Emerging contaminants and unregulated contaminants also remain a public health concern and increasing resource needs. The 2020 Virginia General Assembly session resulted in more work directed to ODW to address lead in drinking water at schools and child day programs (SB392, SB393, HB797, and HB799), PFAS (HB586 and HB1257), and legionella at schools (SB410). ODW anticipates more non-regulatory and regulated activities requiring more resources. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to issue lead and copper rule revisions (LCRR) soon. Due to the complexity of the proposed LCRR, ODW estimates it will likely require 12 more full-time employees (FTEs) to properly implement, but no additional funding is provided for this need.

Eight waterworks had lead action level exceedances during 2019. As of the first quarter of 2020, 33 active waterworks had LCR monitoring/reporting violations and four had LCR treatment technique violations. With lower action levels in the LCRR, ODW expects the number of waterworks with lead violations to increase.

ODW has undertaken several initiatives since 2017 to improve business process and efficiency. ODW requires laboratories to submit sampling results electronically through the EPA’s Compliance Monitoring Data Portal (CMDP). Requiring data submission through CMDP reduces errors, improves data quality, and allows ODW to focus on higher priority needs. Next, ODW is on-boarding new software to remove old, unsecure databases and allow staff to perform inspections with tablets that automatically upload and share results in real time.

Finally, ODW reworked some staff duties to create a compliance specialist position in each field office and a compliance coordinator in the central office. With one position in each field office focused on compliance issues, central office staff worked with field directors and compliance specialists to implement several new policies and procedures to reduce the number of waterworks that EPA classified as "serious violators" because of ongoing non-compliance (generally related for a failure to monitor). ODW revised its Enforcement Manual to reflect the new roles and approach. During 2019, VDH issued 1,250 NOAVs, 80 warning letters, and one Special Order. In the past five years (2015-2019), the number of community waterworks with health-based violations has continued to decline. As of August 2020, only 1.8%, or 20 community waterworks had health-based violations. Serious violators decreased from 30 in 2019 to 11 in 2020.

The Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) is performing a programmatic review of Virginia’s drinking water program to determine whether ODW effectively monitors waterworks in Virginia. OSIG’s interim report and recommendations are found in Section VI. Agency recommendations are found in Section V.


(*1) The U.S. Conference of Mayors. Local Government Investment in Municipal Water and Sewer Infrastructure: Adding Value to the National Economy. Richard A. Krop, Ph.D., Charles Hernick, and Christopher Frantz. The Cadmus Group, Inc. August 14, 2008. See also the 2017 Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Eligibility Handbook. EPA, June 2017.
(*2) Operation fees are capped at $3.00 per service connection, not to exceed $160,000 per year, by Code of Virginia § 32.1-171.1 and the Budget Bill.