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State cleanup plan sees sparkling Spokane River

Sat., Feb. 13, 2010

By 2020, the Spokane River will look more like a blue-ribbon trout stream, Washington state officials predicted Friday as they unveiled a final plan to reduce the river’s phosphorus load by 90 percent within a decade.

Anglers will slip on fewer slimy, algae-coated rocks along the shore, they said. More oxygen will be available for fish and other aquatic creatures in the river, and the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam will be transformed, with oxygenated water extending another 50 feet deep, and fewer outbreaks of toxic algae blooms.

“It’s like adding a new lake that’s suitable for fish to live,” said Grant Pfeiffer, Eastern Washington director for the state Department of Ecology.

The plan, crafted over 12 years, was sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday. EPA officials have 30 days to review the plan, which is designed to bring the Spokane River into compliance with water quality standards.

Millions of gallons of phosphorus-rich wastewater are discharged daily into the river by sewage treatment plants and industries. Meeting the new limits will require major plant upgrades. The plan also targets nonpoint phosphorus sources, such as fertilizer runoff from lawns and fields.

Pfeiffer said residents have enjoyed low sewer rates at the river’s expense.

“We’ve not been paying for the actual cost of maintaining the environmental benefits in the community,” he said.

“I’m expecting an increase in my sewer rates,” he added, “but it’s not going to be outside the normal range for urban sewer rates.”

Pfeiffer said the river cleanup may also require lifestyle changes to reduce phosphorus in the waste stream. The Washington Legislature is considering requiring phosphorus-free fertilizers on residential lawns. And Ecology officials are trying to quantify how kitchen garbage disposals affect phosphorus loads.

The city of Spokane’s sewage treatment plant is the largest single-source discharger of phosphorus, dumping an average of 266 pounds into the river daily. Within a decade, that level must drop to 17 pounds per day. Extensions may be available for dischargers who make good-faith efforts but don’t hit the new limits.

On Friday, the city and Spokane County issued statements supporting the cleanup plan. Mayor Mary Verner called the river “one of our greatest natural assets” and said city officials are committed to long-term river cleanup.

Leaders of Idaho cities, however, expressed reservations about the plan. Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board discharge treated wastewater into the Spokane River. By law, it must meet Washington water quality standards at the state line.

Eric Keck, Post Falls’ city manager, said the plan requires Idaho dischargers to meet more stringent phosphorus limits than the city of Spokane. Spokane’s limits for phosphorus discharge are 42 parts per billion. Idaho dischargers’ limits are 36 parts per billion.

“We see that as an inequality,” said Sid Frederickson, the city of Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater superintendent.

Washington dischargers can also use “pollution trading credits” if they have trouble meeting the phosphorus limits, said Ken Windram, the Hayden sewer board’s manager. That means they can pay to offset phosphorus entering the river elsewhere, such as phasing out old septic systems, or working with farmers to reduce agricultural runoff.

Idaho dischargers are regulated by the EPA, which doesn’t offer that option, Windram noted.

EPA officials said they are investigating offering pollution trading credits.

Karin Baldwin, an acting watershed unit supervisor at the Ecology Department, said Idaho cities have stricter phosphorus limits because they don’t test their effluent as frequently as Spokane does. If Idaho dischargers agree to more frequent testing, EPA might also allow them to operate under the 42 parts per billion limit, she said.

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