PULLMAN – Wilda Patton knew there was something wrong with the water in the Palouse River.
“I didn’t know what it was in it that made it poor quality,” said Patton, 70, who has lived along a tributary to the south fork of the river for 22 years.
State officials are now planning an ambitious cleanup of the tiny waterway, where fecal coliform, low oxygen levels and warm water temperatures can threaten aquatic life and human health, according to state reports. But Pullman officials argue the Department of Ecology’s proposed cleanup may not accomplish enough to justify the spending, especially on a river of little recreational value. The city estimates the cleanup could cost at least $10 million, raising the possibility of increased fees or taxes to pay for it.
“It could be an onerous expense for a small benefit,” said John Sherman, Pullman’s city supervisor.
Federal law requires that the state restore polluted water bodies, said Elaine Snouwaert, an Ecology water specialist who is leading the cleanup effort. If cities fail to comply, the Department of Ecology can fine them up to $10,000 per violation per day. Snouwaert emphasized that the state wants to work with cities to improve the Palouse’s water.
“I believe people do, in the end, want clean water,” she said. “The Clean Water Act came from public pressure.”
But the proposal comes at a time when city budgets are particularly lean.
“We are all in favor of cleaner water,” Sherman said, “What we are not in favor of is unfunded mandates that are costly and achieve little.”
‘An ambitious proposition’
At their headwaters in the mountains above Moscow, the tributaries of the Palouse River are clean and healthy, home to brook trout. By the time the water winds its way through farms and past the cities of Moscow and Pullman, the river violates both Washington state and federal water quality standards.
Hawthorne and willow trees once lined the river’s banks, cooling the waterway. Without those plants, the bank’s soils erode more quickly and pollutants can flow directly into the water.
Elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria are the main contaminants. The most likely causes of the river’s pollution are storm water or even sewage drains being routed into the creek, Snouwaert said. Long-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are still present in fish tissue samples, sometimes in levels three to four times the human health criteria, according to a 2005 environmental assessment by DOE. Elevated water temperatures, which also affect oxygen levels in the river, allow bacteria to thrive and stress the fish of the Palouse, which include trout, smallmouth bass, northern pike minnows and several species of suckers.
Barry Moore, an associate professor at WSU’s Department of Natural Resources, said a full cleanup and restoration of the waterway could be time-consuming and costly.
“It would be an ambitious proposition,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything like it done before in the Palouse.”
Adding to the problem are landfills, aging septic systems and wastewater treatment plants that continue to leak contaminants into the river, according to the Ecology department. The city of Moscow, the wastewater treatment plant in Pullman and several local businesses have all been out of compliance with federal Clean Water Act within the last five years, according to reports filed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
At the top of the list is Moscow, which agreed to pay $134,000 for discharging too many contaminants. In a four-year period, the city’s wastewater treatment facility had 871 violations, according to EPA.
City Supervisor Gary Riedner said Moscow is taking steps to fix the problem, including diverting storm water and spending $6 million to upgrade the plant’s filtration system.
Still, Moscow remains out of compliance.
“We are evaluating the situation to determine the next appropriate steps,” David Domingo, an EPA compliance officer, said in an e-mail.
The risk to humans is less clear. People who come in contact with the water may be exposed to e-coli, salmonella and hepatitis, Ecology contends.
“We need to either keep children from playing in the water or protect the water for the children,” Snouwaert said.
Patton, who lives in a mobile-home park near the river, said she sometimes sees children playing in the water or young adults floating on tubes — something she discouraged her children from doing.
“I’ve always known it was bad water,” she said.
Dr. Timothy Moody, Whitman County public health officer, said he has never known of an illness being traced back to the river. “We have known for years and years that the river is bad quality,” Moody said, “Luckily, there are… (few) recreational areas along these parts of the river, so concerns of illness are slim.”
Numbers are ‘just guesses’
Already, volunteers are planting willows along the river to strengthen its banks. Ecology analysts are tracking the sources of pollution. City leaders are examining ways to improve storm water runoff and discharge from treatment plants.
“(We are) bringing it back to what it potentially once was before human impact,” said James Blakely, a community outreach specialist for the Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute, which has worked on several restoration projects.
But the cleanup plan, which Ecology has not yet finalized, may not be straightforward.
Keith Bloom, director of construction services and quality assurance at WSU and a Pullman city councilman, claims most of the bacteria in the Palouse River water system comes from wildlife, such as moose, deer, otters and beavers.
In Colfax, state analysts believe they isolated one surprising source of bacterial loading: pigeons.
“The DOE can’t tell us what (bacteria) is naturally occurring and what is man-caused,” Bloom said. “They have refused to do DNA testing, even though the technology to do so is available to them.”
Snouwaert said the number of pollution sources makes it difficult and costly to track — even more so if the state used DNA testing. Likewise, it’s difficult to estimate a clean-up cost.
But she said it’s clear the pollution sources extend well beyond the city of Pullman.
Ecology says potential pollution sources include individual septic systems, livestock and storm water from Washington State University and the cities of Moscow, Pullman and Colfax. In some places, aging septic lines may need to be repaired. In others, it may require preventing animals from accessing the water.
Kevin Gardes, Pullman’s deputy public works director, said the expense could be $10 million. Gardes estimates that $5 million will be spent on a filtration system upgrade in order to improve the dissolved oxygen in the water. Another $5 million could be used to lower the temperature of the river.
That money would most likely come from local taxpayers, though state funding may be available for some projects, according to DOE. Gardes said that Pullman’s utility bills would have to double before the city would be eligible for state funding.
City leaders there are considering diverting storm water that would normally flow to the wastewater treatment plant and using it for irrigation.
“There is a twin benefit in that,” said Sherman, the city’s supervisor. “For one, it helps to irrigate agricultural land and recreational areas. Additionally, it keeps the wastewater out of the river.”
That approach is being used in Moscow, where the storm water is diverted to irrigate an 18-hole golf course and water planting beds. But the plan hasn’t eliminated the wastewater problem for the city of Moscow, which is spending millions to upgrade its treatment plant.
A similar project in Pullman would cost around $16 million, Gardes said.
Ecology has closed its public comment period on the plan and the agency will submit a proposal to the EPA in the next couple months, Snouwaert said.
“It all depends on what the DOE comes up with,” Gardes said. “Until we see that, these numbers are just guesses.”