By Emma Malinak
Buena Vista will renovate its aging wastewater treatment plant now that the city has refinanced the debt from previous water system upgrades.
The drinking water system, which was renovated in 2012, left the city more than $5.3 million in debt, Buena Vista City Manager Jason Tyree said. That obligation, combined with the debt that accumulated from the Vista Links golf course project, has prevented the city from fixing its nearly 40-year-old wastewater plant.
“Because of that debt, we were unable to take on other debt, and things just got behind. Everything got so far behind,” Tyree said.
Buena Vista last month received a low-interest USDA Rural Development loan to help manage older debt, saving the city $300,000 a year in interest payments.
“We had to refinance the debt on the drinking water side so that when we take on new debt, we can make those payments without having to raise the water rates,” he said. “City Council really did not want to raise rates.”
A long-overdue renovation
The wastewater plant, which was built on 10th Street in 1986, should have been remodeled in 2006, Tyree said.
But at that time, the city was struggling to pay off the 2004 golf course that Tyree said “caused a lot of havoc” in Buena Vista. When the course didn’t bring in the expected revenue, the city defaulted on the loan. Last year, Buena Vista paid just over $300,000 to settle the debt left behind.
Now, Tyree said, city officials can turn their attention to the wastewater treatment plant, which “truly needs an overhaul.”
Hunter Young, a civil engineer who has designed water systems for Buena Vista in the past and is now planning the sewage plant’s renovations, said it will cost more than $22 million to bring the plant to modern standards. The project should be finished by the end of 2026.
The renovations will come at a critical time, he said, as Buena Vista adapts to meet the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.
Buena Vista is one of 84 cities affected by the act, because its wastewater enters the Maury River, which eventually flows into the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. The act took effect in 1988 to protect the bay’s ecosystem by reducing the amount of biological nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that pollute local waterways.
But the existing wastewater treatment plant in Buena Vista does not provide any biological nutrient reduction, Young said. Instead, the city purchases credits from plants that eliminate high levels of pollutants to offset the pollution it contributes to the bay area. The credits cost $60,000 a year now, Young said.
“That money could be better used for debt service, number one,” he said. “Number two, the plant is not in the greatest condition overall. There’s a lot of equipment that’s on its last legs, and that money could be used to replace all that.”
Environmental concerns force timely change
According to a 2022 report released by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cities in the bay area are not on track to reduce pollution fast enough to improve and sustain water quality long term.
Young said this need to protect the environment could cause the state to phase out the credit exchange system. Prices of credits could easily double in the upcoming years, he said, so it important for Buena Vista to adapt.
“The argument is this: it’s not helpful to the environment if you just keep shuffling credits around,” he said. “What they really want to do is reduce the total amount of nutrients in the bay, so they will start requiring plants to upgrade, or credits will get more expensive and harder to acquire.”