Water rules could soak governments
Strict standards will be costly, wastewater plant managers say
A state agency is considering strict new water-quality regulations that could cost local governments millions of dollars for compliance.
Officials with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division say the new rules are needed to prevent even stricter ones from being imposed on the state by the federal government. At the same time, local wastewater experts say the proposed rules, known as Regulations 31 and 85, will do little to nothing to clean the state’s waterways.
The issue centers on the amount of nutrients that end up in the state’s rivers and lakes. Having too many nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — causes algae to grow. That, in turn, saps oxygen from the water, creating so-called dead zones, places where nothing can grow and fish can live, said Steve Gunderson, executive director of the water division.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t mandating what Colorado is considering, the federal agency ultimately will impose something even more stringent if the state doesn’t act on its own, he said.
“The EPA has been pushing for states to do something for quite a few years,” Gunderson said. “It is one of the nation’s biggest water quality challenges. (The nutrients) causes a water body to get choked. It will rob the water body of oxygen, and it will raise the pH, the level of corrosivity, in the water. It can adversely impact aquatic life.”
The state has been tracking nutrients in its waterways for decades now, and says that high levels come from a variety of sources, including wastewater treatment plants and agricultural fertilizer.
“We’ve been working on this issue for a decade,” Gunderson said. “The problem is, it can be extremely expensive to treat for it, especially to treat to the levels that protect aquatic life. Those levels can be pretty low.”
The division has filed about 600 pages worth of rules and other accompanying documents with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission that call for lowering phosphorus and nitrogen levels to virtually zero over the next 10 years. The commission is holding a public hearing on the rules in the spring, with an expectation of having them go into effect by June 1.
Local wastewater experts from around the state, however, say that while they agree water should be treated to be as free of nutrients as possible, the division is asking for too much, too soon.
They say there’s no scientific evidence that shows all wastewater treatment plants are releasing too many nutrients, and have asked for more time to research the matter.
Eileen List, industrial pretreatment supervisor for the Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant in Grand Junction, said the city still is studying the proposed rules, but that it could cost as much as $24 million to comply with just with one portion of them.
“When you get into Reg 85, there are impacts not just to wastewater facilities, but there are impacts to stormwater facilities as well as drinking water facilities,” List said. “This is where the city is still in the process of understanding the regulation.”
The commission is to vote on the proposed rule in March, but the city only has until Jan. 20 to file a prehearing statement if it intends to challenge any part of it.
Meanwhile, a group of smaller wastewater agencies from around the state are calling on the governor to intercede.
So far, officials from 32 local entities have signed a letter complaining about the proposed rules, including the Clifton and Orchard Mesa sanitation districts, the Grand Valley Drainage District, the Battlement Mesa Metropolitan District and the towns of Rangely, Cedaredge, De Beque and Nucla.
In the letter that is to be sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper by the end of the week, the officials say the regulations will cost all of them about $2 billion to be in compliance, and ask that he delay it until more scientific research can be done.
“The state has not been able to show us that Colorado has a problem with nutrients,” said Michael Wicklund, manager of the Monument Sanitation District, who started the letter. “There is no funding from the state for any of this, or the federal government.”
Wicklund said the plants can easily treat the phosphorus levels, though he said it can be done cheaper by chemical means. His letter suggests that the division spend the next 10 years monitoring nitrogen levels to see if there is a problem, and where, before mandating new treatment standards.
Eric Brown, the governor’s press secretary, said Hickenlooper will allow the public hearing process to run its course, and doesn’t plan to intercede.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said he plans to introduce a bill when the Legislature reconvenes next month calling for a five-year moratorium on the rule, to give local communities more time to study its impact.
King said the proposed regulation is contrary to an executive order issued by the governor earlier this year to limit state regulations that prove too onerous while the state is recovering from the recession.
Gunderson said all this may be much a-do about nothing. He says the division already has limited the scope of the proposed regulation only to larger plants, and is willing to limit it even further to include specific areas of the state.
“We’re asking for feedback,” he said. “Some say this is too costly, but we have other entities ... including wastewater plants, who feel this is reasonable.”