A water fight that’s been bubbling beneath the surface of public consciousness for at least a decade is likely to erupt like a geyser in coming months as Colorado public health officials move forward with plans to adopt new water-quality regulations.
The proposed regulations are meant to address a stronger nationwide push from the Environmental Protection Agency to cut the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus discharged from wastewater treatment plants into rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. But opponents question the science used to support the need for the regulations, and warn that water bills could double or even triple for some Colorado ratepayers if municipalities are forced to upgrade their facilities.
Earlier this month, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments sent a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper urging him to block the proposed regulations. The same day, Republican state Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction introduced a bill that would essentially place a moratorium on the adoption of regulations.
“This action is not mandated by federal law, nor is it based on any demonstrated adverse environmental impacts occurring in Colorado waters from our facilities,” the PPACG wrote to Hickenlooper. “The cost of implementing such regulations on small and medium-sized communities will be staggering, and we ask for your intervention to stop this regulatory mandate.
Steve Gunderson, director of the Water Quality Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, defends the science, but acknowledges that compliance could be costly. However, he notes, only about 30 percent of wastewater plants in Colorado would be affected by the regulations, which are, at the outset, more lenient than what some environmentalists might consider ideal.
Mostly, he says, the state needs to act before the EPA steps in.
“We continue to believe that is to Colorado’s benefit to start addressing the nutrients so it’s not forced on us by means of a lawsuit of the EPA dictating to us what needs to be done,” Gunderson says.
GREENER LAWNS CAN KILL LAKES
When people are trying to make their lawns green and healthy, they turn to fertilizers that contain nitrogen and phosphorus.
In water, however, high concentrations of the two nutrients can stimulate the growth of algae blooms, which eventually lead to the depletion of oxygen. Without oxygen, the fish, bugs and other organisms that live in the water will die.
How bad can it get?
“In a worst-case scenario, you’d just basically have water devoid of natural aquatic life,” Gunderson says.
That happened in the 1960s to Lake Erie, which was declared “dead” because nutrients spawned algae blooms that killed off native aquatic species. A similar scenario played out in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 set the foundation to deal with not only the nutrient issue, but all pollutants that were fouling American waters. In the ensuing years, states and municipalities have tackled the other pollutants. Tad Foster, a Colorado Springs environmental attorney specializing in water quality issues, says nitrogen and phosphorus represent the last 10 percent of pollutants that need to be addressed.
The EPA hasn’t yet required nutrient regulations, Foster says, but the message is clear.
“We’re getting pressure, without a doubt, from the EPA,” says Foster, who created the Colorado Nutrient Coalition to help municipalities better navigate the complex issue and become part of the discussion. “The EPA is calling on states to move forward more vigorously to set standards on reservoirs, lakes, rivers and streams.”
Colorado has been working on developing nutrient regulations since 2002, and proposed a rule-making hearing for 2010. But revisions and two delays have pushed the hearing into March.
About two weeks ago, the EPA approved a plan in Montana that phases in strict limits on nutrient discharge from municipal wastewater plants and other sources.
But opponents of the regulations in Colorado question the need for action.
“Colorado doesn’t have a problem with algae blooms,” King says.
Foster qualifies that, saying the state doesn’t have a “significant” problem. But he notes that the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission has intervened on a “site-specific” basis in the past, adopting phosphorus standards for the Dillon Reservoir in 1984, and adding Chatfield, Cherry Creek and Bear Creek reservoirs a few years later.
Gunderson says the state has identified about 30 reservoirs with oxygen or high pH problems, and there’s a “whole lot of science” to support the need for regulations.
REGULATIONS WOULD COST BIG BUCKS
To Foster, the site-specific approach is ideal, but given the reality of the situation, he and the Colorado Nutrient Coalition are proposing that limits be imposed on phosphorus, not nitrogen, at least for the time being.
“Why? Because the cost of doing total nitrogen is six times the cost of doing total phosphorus,” Foster says.
He estimates the cost to wastewater plants to control just phosphorus would be $635 million, compared with $2.46 billion to regulate both nitrogen and phosphorus. And that’s just to meet less restrictive standards. To go whole-hog with the “ultimate set” of restrictions for nitrogen and phosphorus would, according to varying estimates, cost from $20 billion to $25 billion.
Gunderson says the state is proposing regulations on both nitrogen and phosphorus for a reason.
“Our science, and what we assert, is, you really have to address both of them,” he says. “If you address one and not the other, you’re not going to see a lot of progress. They’re both fertilizers; if you put nitrogen on your lawn and not phosphorous, your lawn will still turn green.”
But the proposed regulations do not impose the most restrictive limits, he says.
“It starts knocking it down. We’re trying to find a way to start putting a dent in this thing,” Gunderson says.
Gunderson also says that water-quality officials realize that the threat of nutrient pollution is not equally distributed around the state. They’ve proposed that about 30 percent of the state’s wastewater plants — primarily those in the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas — install treatment to “knock down” their nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the next 15 years.
“Based on our data, those 30 percent contribute about 95 percent of the nutrients load,” he says. “There are isolated problem areas, but it occurs mostly where people are. It’s a people problem. We generate phosphorus and nitrogen, and we flush it down our toilets.”
Ginny Johnson, senior environmental specialist with Colorado Springs Utilities, says the city’s wastewater plants are already meeting the proposed limits for total inorganic nitrogen, but would have to do some “relatively minor” improvements to meet the phosphorus standards.
“In the near term, I don’t have a huge sense of a cost to ratepayers,” she says.
But smaller plants might not be as up-to-date on their equipment, and upgrading would strain their pocketbooks. Gunderson says there are provisions in the proposal to exempt financially disadvantaged communities.
“We are sensitive to the economic conditions of municipalities,” he says.
Still, there’s fear among many communities that they’ll be socked with a massive bill. Like the PPACG, the Colorado Rural Community Coalition wrote a letter to Hickenlooper that was signed by 12 wastewater dischargers in El Paso County, expressing concern about the regulations. Gunderson says that about half of the opponents who have signed letters wouldn’t be affected by the current proposal.
Gunderson understands the opposition to the regulations, but says doing nothing is not an option.
“I continue to believe that it makes sense to do this here, rather than having it forced upon us, which one day it will.”
Contact Barbara Cotter: 636-0194