Spokane Valley residents may pay dearly for a federal mistake and stringent Washington water quality standards, city officials were told Tuesday.
An economy-wrenching moratorium on new construction is a possibility, but larger-than-expected sewer rate increases are a certainty.
The problem focuses on a new sewage treatment plant to serve cities and unincorporated areas in the Spokane Valley, but other parts of Spokane County also are affected.
Spokane County, which provides sewer service in the city of Spokane Valley and surrounding areas, is building a new treatment plant to supplement the regional plant operated by the city of Spokane.
Already, county Utilities Director Bruce Rawls told the Spokane Valley City Council Tuesday, the estimated cost has ballooned from an early estimate of $73.4 million to approximately $170 million.
One possible answer for tougher-than-expected requirements – putting treated effluent on Saltese Flats instead of into the Spokane River – could add $40 million.
Mayor Rich Munson worried that city residents won’t be able to afford to flush their toilets, and he seethed at the prospect of a construction moratorium.
Munson blamed state officials for water quality standards he believes can’t be attained even though Spokane County’s new treatment plant would remove 99 percent of algae-feeding, fish-choking phosphorus.
“We’re going into a recession in the next few months and we don’t know how deep it’s going to go,” Munson said. “If we’re forced to go into a building moratorium, this area is not going to go into a recession, it’s going to go into a depression.”
A moratorium could damage Spokane Valley’s economy for a decade, and “this is not an acceptable scenario,” Munson said.
Rawls said he isn’t yet recommending a construction moratorium, but thinks one might be necessary if it becomes clear that a permit can’t be obtained in time.
He said a recent calculation showed the county already has commitments to supply 11 million gallons of treatment a day, but it has only 10 million gallons of capacity left at the Spokane plant.
With current growth, Rawls anticipates reaching the 10 million-gallon limit in 2014.
Developers might sue if they’re given building permits for projects that can’t get sewer service, Rawls said.
People who get sewer service also may be unhappy when they get the bill.
Last year, when the estimated cost of the new treatment plant was $106 million, consultants projected relatively small rate increases that would reach a total of $39.48 a month in 2013 for residential customers.
The rates apply to all Spokane County sewer customers, even those in the northern part of the county where sewage would continue to go to the Spokane treatment plant.
Rawls declined to comment Tuesday on how high he now thinks rates may go, noting consultants have not yet revised their projections.
He acknowledged, though, that the picture went from bad to worse last month when the U.S. Environmental Protection withdrew its support for a Spokane County plan to reduce phosphorus and other plant nutrients in the Spokane River.
Facing criticism from the Sierra Club, Rawls said, the EPA conceded it improperly decided to consider Idaho’s nutrient discharges into the river separately from Washington’s.
Rawls said local governments, the Sierra Club and companies that discharge into the river all wanted a multistate approach from the get-go.
James Bellatty, water quality manager in the Washington Department of Ecology’s Spokane regional office, said the department’s goal is to develop a new discharge plan by December 2009. Up to two more months would be needed for EPA approval.
Rawls said experience suggests to him the revisions could take up to two years.
Even so, Rawls said he thinks the county should go ahead and build its new state-of-the-art “membrane filter” treatment plant.
He said county commissioners have scheduled a public hearing Nov. 18 and hope to sign a construction and operation contract in December. That should allow the plant to be operational in January 2012.
Even if the plant has to be mothballed temporarily while waiting for a federal operating permit, that cost would be offset by inflation in construction costs, Rawls said.
Although the EPA has the last word on the operating permit, it merely enforces state water-quality standards that were developed by the Department of Ecology.
Munson complained that the state standards are the strictest in the nation. The EPA’s own standard is “far more lenient,” he said.
“Do we change the standard or do we shut down areas of the state?” Munson asked.
“At this point,” Bellatty replied, “changing the standards is a very difficult if not impossible task.”
Munson said the EPA recently said the standards can’t be met with current technology and recommended a “use attainability analysis” to override the standards.
Bellatty said the Department of Ecology hasn’t ruled out that approach, but “we want to do everything we can to try to reduce the pollution load on the river before we go down that other road.”
That means Spokane County residents may need to do more than switch to phosphorus-free dishwasher soap.
In an interview, Bellatty said the standard is “very difficult,” but Ecology officials believe it can be met.
Rawls said Spokane County would get “robust” credit for reducing phosphorus in groundwater by replacing septic drain fields with sewers, but additional phosphorus-reducing efforts could cost Spokane and other jurisdictions “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Additional steps might include reductions in stormwater runoff and fertilizer use.
Anticipated delays in building the new sewage treatment plant prompted county officials to slow down their septic-conversion program.
In 2004, county commissioners abandoned a policy of forcing property owners to hook up sewer lines within a year after the sewers are available. Commissioners worried the county’s allotted capacity at the Spokane treatment plant would be exhausted before the new county plant was ready.
As a result, Rawls said, only 35 to 40 percent of property owners hook up to newly completed sewers.
City Councilman Bill Gothmann suggested more time could be bought by prohibiting sewer hookups unless a septic system fails. But Rawls said county officials are reluctant to do that.
He said “it seems kind of awkward” to bill people $5,800 for building a sewer they’re not allowed to use.
“It just didn’t feel like the right thing to do,” he said.
Rawls said he expects a solution will be reached before a construction moratorium or some other form of sewage-treatment rationing is necessary.
John Craig may be contacted at email@example.com.