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Ecology regional director talks about river cleanup

Grant Pfeifer heads the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Eastern Washington regional office. (Colin Mulvany)
Grant Pfeifer heads the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Eastern Washington regional office. (Colin Mulvany)

Most people are “fascinated with water, especially moving water,” says Grant Pfeifer, the Washington Department of Ecology’s eastern regional director. That’s particularly true in the Inland Northwest, which has such a long recreation season, he said. Last week, Pfeifer talked about his agency’s Spokane River cleanup plan. It was released last month after 12 years of controversy, and will cost an estimated $300 million to $500 million over the next decade. The plan requires wastewater dischargers to reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into the river. It also targets other phosphorus sources, such as septic tanks and fertilizer runoff.

Q:What will the Spokane River look like by 2020?

A:One of the worst symptoms of the phosphorus is the algae outbreaks in Long Lake. We fully expect the profile of the lake to change. The oxygen profile will be more vibrant and healthy. … It will be more suitable for trout and other native species. There will be less plant growth, fewer lily pads and fewer algae-covered rocks by the shore. Over time, the Spokane River is going to look more like a mountain river.

Q:How will local residents benefit?

A:We’re a species that lives here, too. With the reduction in the phosphorus loading, we’re providing more opportunities for the community to grow and to hook more people up to the sewer system. As communities, we’ll pay for upgrades to the sewage treatment plants. These facilities are expensive to build and expensive to operate. I anticipate that our sewer rates will go up. (But) they tell me we’re not leading the pack with high sewer rates.

Q:You’ve mentioned that the plan will require lifestyle changes.

A:People will grow into new ways of living and doing things to optimize what they value. We’ve changed to not using dishwasher detergent with phosphorus. We’ll be asked to be more careful about not over-fertilizing our lawns … and to minimize the use of our garbage disposals. Cleaning up pet waste is critical – it’s a small, but everyday thing.

Q:The plan sets phosphorus discharges at 40 parts per billion. How small is that?

A:Probably a thimble-full in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It’s a minute amount. We’re asking ourselves, as a community, to use the latest, greatest and most aggressive technologies for treating the waste.

Q:Idaho dischargers and Inland Empire Paper (a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review) are appealing the plan.

A:They’ve requested dispute resolution. It’s an internal process, not a legal challenge. They’ve asked Ecology to take a look at what we’ve done so far. It’s kind of an independent check on our work – the Spokane (Ecology) office is not a part of that review. One of the questions is whether the plan leans too much on industry. … Those conversations are under way right now.

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