Big changes for valley water treatment plants on the horizon

Local water groups call for more monitoring

On March 12, Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division held a hearing on the regulation of nutrients like phosphorous, nitrogen and chlorophyll A in Colorado’s water bodies; revisions to the nutrient standards of phosphorous, nitrogen and chlorophyll A; and new mandates for nutrient removal technology in wastewater treatment plants.

 

 

In the long term, the changes could have implications for Gunnison County’s water treatment plants, possibly to the tune of millions of dollars. According to the county’s environmental health specialist, Richard Stenson, there have been two main points of controversy surrounding the rulemaking.
“The primary controversy is the expense involved in changing water treatment plant operation to remove nutrients in water bodies,” Stenson said.
“The other controversy stems from the question of, where does the pollution come from? Wastewater treatment plants are concerned they are responsible for picking up the tab for all phosphorous and nitrogen… There has been some discussion at the state level about whether the treatment plants should be responsible for cleaning up pollution that may have originated somewhere else,” Stenson said.
Stenson met with the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners prior to the hearing to share staff recommendations that the county support the rulemaking, with some additional suggestions: to provide a funding source for smaller districts or entities; to allow implementation to be phased; and to direct that “all waters currently not evidencing excess nutrients be maintained at concentration levels at or below an identified baseline.”
Representatives from several local water groups, including High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA), the Upper Gunnison Watershed Conservancy District (UGWCD) and the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition, also attended the meeting. So did Rodney Due, public works director for the town of Crested Butte.
Due said he estimated that at the low end, adding new filtration measures in the town of Crested Butte would be $5 million just to cover the conversion. That would not include operating costs. It’s possible that Crested Butte will be exempt from implementation because it discharges fewer than 500,000 gallons of water per day, but it’s too soon to tell.
Due also said a current provision allows facilities to demonstrate that their discharges do not affect water quality, and he wants to see that remain.
“If we don’t have a problem, leave us alone,” Due said. He also spoke to the importance of broad monitoring that goes beyond dischargers and looks at non-point source pollution as well, including agriculture and irrigation.
Stenson believes the discussion of who should be responsible will continue at the state level, where ad hoc committees have been assigned to address the question. Yet he also pointed out that the cost of implementation now could be cheaper than dealing with future problems.
 “Without complying, we really run the risk of more water quality issues that could be very expensive down the road, so it might be more expensive to not deal with phosphorous, nitrogen and chlorophyll A,” Stenson pointed out.
From a planning perspective, however, the rulemaking delays compliance for Gunnison Valley facilities for 10 years. According to Jennifer Bock, water director for HCCA, Gunnison, Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte would not be covered by regulations until 2022.
“The latest proposal includes a 10-year delay for implementation of rule #85, which covers wastewater treatment plants with two million gallons per day or less. All plants in the county could be excluded for at least 10 years,” said Bock.
That leaves time for local water districts and treatment facilities to plan for implementation, and it also leaves time for the county to step up its own water monitoring. Anthony Poponi, director of the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition, spoke to the importance of continued and even improved monitoring.
“I don’t think the Upper Gunnison monitoring program data is detailed enough to identify where we sit with some of the standards proposed and how specific rivers may be attaining or not attaining these criteria…,” Poponi said. “I would love to see more data before the end of that 10-year window.”
Steve Glazer, former HCCA water director, agreed on the need for more data and the need to understand the implications for dischargers. He spoke as a member of the UGRWCD, saying, “The state has provided significant flexibility to deal with site-specific conditions and allow for variances based on site-specific data. I am strong proponent of the need for more data.
“It is okay to have the state move forward with the regulations,” he continued, “and there is a role for us in planning for the future. That role for all of us is to increase our monitoring.”
Overall, the water groups spoke in favor of the commissioners supporting the regulations, particularly with the 10-year delay for implementation, and asked the commissioners to continue contributing to valley-wide monitoring efforts.
And Frank Kugel, general manager of the UGRCWD, said the Colorado Resources and Power Development Authority, where he sits on the board, also supported the rulemaking. The authority funds infrastructure for dinking- and waste-water treatment, and was initially concerned about the cost of implementation.
“We asked the division to hold off and got a nine-month stay on implementation of the rules so we could fund a study to show the impacts of nutrient enforcement criteria. As a result of that we feel much more comfortable, especially with a 10-year compliance period for smaller wastewater treatment providers,” Kugel said.
The commissioners formally approved the letter at their regular meeting on March 6. It was also sent to Senator Gail Schwartz and Representatives Roger Wilson and Millie Hamner. Bock asked for them to also copy Governor Hickenlooper, who has considered asking the commission to drop the rulemaking altogether.
As for increased monitoring, commissioner Hap Channell agreed with the commissioners. “We will take that up when it is brought back to us.”

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