A multiyear effort to lower phosphorus levels in the Spokane River – and reduce algae blooms and improve water quality in the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam – has hit a major snag.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday it erred when calculating phosphorus limits in permits for Idaho cities that discharge treated sewage into the river.
The method it used wasn’t “legally solid,” said Christine Psyk, associate director in EPA’s Office of Water.
The result is further delay in the effort to clean up the river.
Officials at the Washington Department of Ecology reacted with dismay. Ecology was on the verge of issuing final permits to Washington dischargers that would have reduced their phosphorus output by more than 95 percent. The limits in the Washington permits were tied to an EPA determination that the amount of phosphorus flowing from Idaho was negligible. The new finding negates that.
“We were getting ready to send (the permits) out when we got this bombshell,” said Jani Gilbert, an Ecology spokeswoman. “We’re very frustrated. We hope we’re not forced to go back to the drawing board. … That’s a lot of time and effort and money spent going down the wrong road.”
Phosphorus is found in fertilizer and human waste. It erodes water quality by spurring aquatic plant growth, which robs the water of dissolved oxygen as plants decay.
To protect Long Lake, where fish struggle to find cold, oxygenated water in the summer, Washington state law says human-caused phosphorus emissions can’t reduce levels of dissolved oxygen by more than 0.2 parts per million.
“It’s a very stringent standard,” said the EPA’s Tom Eaton.
Although Idaho cities contribute relatively small amounts of phosphorus to the river, their output – along with what the Department of Ecology had proposed for Washington’s municipal and industrial dischargers – would have reduced dissolved oxygen levels by more than 0.2 parts per million in Long Lake, Eaton said.
The EPA and Ecology will work on new plans to meet the standard, he said. Neither agency had details or a timeline.
“We don’t know what our path forward is,” said Ecology’s Gilbert. However, “our biggest priority is getting phosphorus out of the river as soon as possible, and we’re not going to let this deter us.”
Aeration of the lake is a consideration, Eaton said. That would involve Avista Corp., which operates Long Lake Dam. The utility already agreed to study and work on the lake’s water quality problems as part of the conditions for relicensing the dam, said Hugh Imhof, Avista spokesman.
The Sierra Club, meanwhile, hailed Thursday’s announcement, calling it good news for the 111-mile river, which flows from Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho to the Columbia River in Washington.
“We have to get rid of this fiction that pollution that crosses the state border is natural,” said Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney with the Center for Justice, a Spokane public interest law firm that represents the Sierra Club.
Eichstaedt said the Sierra Club repeatedly raised concerns that EPA’s methodology failed to protect water downstream. “This is nothing new,” he said. “It’s just been ignored.”
Eaton, the EPA’s Washington operations office director, said his agency initially thought its approach would work. States don’t have the ability to regulate one another, so it seemed unlikely that Washington state standards would apply in the Idaho portion of the Spokane River, which doesn’t have dissolved oxygen deficiencies, Eaton said.
But interstate water policy is an evolving area, he said. After exhaustive legal reviews and analysis, the agency opted to change course.
“We thought we were on a solid path, and we weren’t,” Eaton said.
Some Washington dischargers also found the EPA’s earlier approach controversial. Idaho cities had phosphorus discharge limits of 50 parts per billion, according to draft permits issued by the EPA.
In Washington, dischargers would have been subject to the much tougher limits of 10 parts per billion.
The city of Spokane had concerns about “the fairness issue between the two states,” said Lloyd Brewer, the city’s environmental program manager. “We’re happy to hear that it will be more appropriately dealt with.”
Although the new discharge permits will be delayed, Brewer said the city of Spokane won’t relax its phosphorus-reduction efforts. The city anticipates spending more than $500 million on new technology at its sewage treatment plant and related sewage-and-storm-water collection systems.
Test programs are under way and will continue, Brewer said.
The delay shouldn’t affect Spokane County’s efforts to build a new wastewater treatment plant, said Dave Moss, the county’s water reclamation manager. The county’s goal is to have the plant running by mid-2012.
“We don’t need a permit for about four more years,” he said. “We’re not pushing the panic button.”
EPA officials will meet with Idaho cities this month to discuss how the recent announcement will affect them.
“It doesn’t bode well for me,” said Sid Fredrickson, Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater utility superintendent. The discharge limits “ain’t going to go up.”
All the region’s residents contribute to the river’s phosphorus load when they flush their toilets, Fredrickson said. And the higher levels of treatment are costly, he said.
“It’s only a $1.5 billion regional problem,” Fredrickson said.