Natural, Historic & Cultural Resources

Water Quality

Good water quality means much more than having a nice place to swim. Virginia's streams, rivers, bays and coastal estuaries provide a long list of important economic functions.

Why is This Important?

Clean water is an input to industrial and agricultural production and is an essential resource for supporting the fishing and tourism industries. Clean water is a habitat for economically and ecologically important species; it is also necessary for the daily health and hygiene of every Virginian. Dirty water results in large private and public expenditures to clean the water before use. In short, clean water is an essential component of Virginia's economic growth and well-being.

How is Virginia Doing?

Waterborne Nitrogen Discharges into Chesapeake Bay. See text for explanation. Waterborne Phosphorous Discharges into Chesapeake Bay. See text for explanation.

The Chesapeake Bay is a particularly important water resource for the state. While Virginia has agreed to reduce its contribution to the nitrogen and phosphorous loads in the bay by substantial amounts by 2010, progress toward this goal has been slow. The pace of the cleanup should improve as recently adopted point source regulations are implemented and nonpoint source funding increases and targeting of best management practices expands.

Likewise, the number of impaired waterways throughout the Commonwealth that have been restored is slowly increasing. Since some waterways have impairments not under state control, improvements in these waterways may be measured as incremental improvements rather than as a shift from impaired status to unimpaired or restored status.

What Influences Water Quality?

Water quality is degraded when toxic chemicals, biological waste, sediment, and excess nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous, flow into rivers, streams, wetlands and coastal waters. The pollutants are categorized as one of two sources: point sources, where the effluent has a single known point of discharge into state waters such as a discharge pipe; and non-point sources, which are diffuse sources where pollutants often travel with stormwater runoff or groundwater. Examples are runoff from farms, septic fields, paved surfaces and lawns. Water can also be polluted by deposition from air.

Point source discharges and some nonpoint sources are regulated under federal and state law. However, a significant number of nonpoint sources fall under voluntary, incentive-based programs such a those that cost-share the installation of agricultural nonpoint source pollution control practices. Pollution can be limited "at the source" through prevention techniques that limit the generation of the pollutant in the first place or by treating the effluent by physical, chemical or biological means prior to discharge into state waters. Virginia is delegated administration of the Clean Water Act by the United State Environmental Protection Agency and therefore administers regulations based on federal law and well as point and nonpoint source programs under state law.

Under the framework of the federal Clean Water Act, water bodies not meeting established water quality standards are classified as "impaired." At this time only limited data exist on the 50,000 miles of streams and rivers in Virginia, but the available data shows increasing impaired waters in recent years, totaling almost 9,000 miles as of 2006. According to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the increases are mainly due to monitoring waters that had not been monitored in the past and more stringent standards to protect aquatic life and human health.

Another useful indicator of progress in improving water quality is the amount of excess nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous, being discharged into the Chesapeake Bay. These nutrients are discharged from both point and non-point sources. Nutrient discharges into the bay in the recent past indicate a slow trend toward reductions. Virginia's control of point-source discharges is better than the control of the considerably larger non-point discharges, which are largely agricultural in origin and managed under voluntary incentive-based programs.

Informative rankings of states on all aspects of water quality do not exist at this time. Cross state comparisons depend on the size of the economy, the size of the population, state hydrology, and contributions of pollutants from other states or regions. However, states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed report annually on nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment discharges into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers. It is important to note that some water pollutants are not under Virginia's direct control. For example, the level of mercury in state waters is determined, in large part, by the in-state deposition of mercury emissions that enter the atmosphere outside of the state, and even outside of the country.

What is the State's Role?

Through the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Department of Forestry, and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia implements a variety of programs to reduce the pollutants that harm water quality. Many of these activities amount to enforcing standards and rules set at the federal level, while other standards are largely under state control.

The Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) provides state matching funds for point and nonpoint source projects that reduce nutrients and other pollutants flowing into Virginia's waters, including the Chesapeake Bay. From fiscal year 1998 through fiscal year 2006, the WQIF provided approximately $100 million in funds for point source grants and $65 million for nonpoint source grants, Best Management Practices (BMPs) and other projects.

The state's choices about how to achieve reductions in pollution can have a great effect on the cost involved in achieving a given water quality standard or goal. Thus, while harder to measure than effluents themselves, relative cost effectiveness of pollution control regulations can have a substantial impact on the competitiveness of the state's economy and on the amount of pollution reductions achieved over time. However, there is no doubt that clean and vibrant waters will in the long term improve Virginia's economic condition and quality of life.

What can Citizens Do?

Individuals and groups are encouraged to be active participants in resource management. To learn more about Virginia's environment, stewardship and public participation opportunities, or partners engaged in conservation, please visit the Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources,, or Virginia Naturally,

Data Definitions and Sources

The Chesapeake Bay Program,


Recent State Initiatives

Strategic Plan for Restoration of State Waters: The Secretary of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Conservation and Recreation are preparing a plan for the cleanup of Virginia's impaired waters. This plan is being developed with assistance from several stakeholders and includes (1) measurable objectives, (2) a description of the strategies to meet the plan's objectives, (3) time frames for accomplishing the objectives, (4) a plan for disbursing funds for point and nonpoint pollution projects and (5) an analysis of alternative funding mechanisms. The first version of this plan is due January 1, 2007 and will be updated every 6 months as necessary. Initiatives/WaterCleanupPlan/

Limiting the Discharge of Nitrogen and Phosphorus to Protect and Restore the Chesapeake Bay: The State Water Control Board adopted regulatory caps on how much nitrogen and phosphorus can be discharged by waste water treatment plants, industries and other point sources throughout the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These limits are designed to improve the water quality in the Bay and its tidal rivers.

Nutrient Trading Program: The State Water Control Board adopted the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Nutrient Credit Exchange Program, designed to (1) meet total nitrogen and total phosphorus cap load allocations cost-effectively and as soon as possible in keeping with the 2010 timeline and objectives of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, (2) accommodate continued growth and economic development in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and (3) provide a foundation for establishing market-based incentives to help achieve the Chesapeake Bay Program's nonpoint source reduction goals. This regulation establishes the framework for wastewater treatment plants and others to meet their permit limits by either installing technology at their plant or obtaining reductions from other sources. 9VAC25-820-NutrientDischarges GP-09-06-06.pdf

Major State Programs

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) administers the federal Clean Water Act and enforces state laws to improve the quality of Virginia's streams, rivers, bays and ground water for aquatic life, human health and other water uses. Permits are issued to businesses, industries, local governments and individuals that take into account physical, chemical and biological standards for water quality.

Environmental health offices of the Virginia Department of Health inspect municipal drinking water supplies, regulate the installation of wells, ensure sewer systems are functioning properly, and regulate the disposal of solid sewage waste.

The Virginia Water Quality Improvement Act of 1997 (Code of Virginia, Section 10.1-2117 through 2134) was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly in response to the need to finance the nutrient reduction strategies being developed for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. A special permanent, nonreverting fund, known as the "Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund" was established to assist local governments and individuals in reducing point source nutrient loads to the Chesapeake Bay with technical and financial assistance made available through grants.

DEQ provides a coordinating role assisting the Commonwealth and its localities to manage and protect water resources to meet long term human and environmental needs. Improved coordination of drought response and water resources management activities at the local, regional and state levels are essential to guaranteeing the adequacy of Virginia's water supplies and to meeting the current and future needs of Virginia's citizens.

DEQ manages the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund (VCWRLF). The VCWRLF includes a program established to provide financial assistance in the form of low-interest loans to local governments for needed improvements at publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities and/or collection systems. The scope of VCWRLF activity has been expanded to provide low-interest loans for agricultural and other non-point source water quality issues.

DEQ conducts on-site training and assistance programs at publicly owned wastewater treatment plants in Virginia. The programs identify operations, maintenance and/or management problems that are causing or are likely to cause noncompliance and provide on-site training and assistance to correct the identified problems.

The Virginia Petroleum Storage Tank Program provides various customer services to the Virginia community. For the Aboveground Storage Tank (AST) and Underground Storage Tank (UST) Compliance Inspections Programs, DEQ develops regulations and coordinates the statewide effort to maintain compliance with the AST/UST requirements. AST/UST compliance inspections of regulated tanks are conducted in a cooperative effort with the regulated community to protect human health and the environment. Releases of petroleum and/or regulated substances into the environment must be reported to DEQ. After a release is reported, DEQ staff will work with the tank owner/operator to characterize and clean up the release.

DEQ extensively tests Virginia's rivers, lakes, and tidal waters for pollutants. DEQ has developed plans, with public input, to restore and maintain the water quality for impaired waters. These plans are called Total Maximum Daily Loads, a term that represents the total pollutant a waterbody can assimilate and still meet standards.

The Virginia Water Protection Permit Program regulates impacts to state waters, including wetlands. In 2000, the General Assembly removed the dependence of the state nontidal wetlands program on the issuance of a federal permit, thus enabling DEQ to use the Virginia Water Protection Permit Program to regulate activities in wetlands.

Thousands of farmers have made the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) one of Virginia's most active water quality efforts. The program aims to improve Virginia's water quality and wildlife habitat by offering financial incentives, cost-share and rental payments to farmers who voluntarily restore riparian buffers, filter strips and wetlands through the installation of approved conservation practices.

The Virginia Resources Authority provides infrastructure financing for Virginia's local governments and authorities.