Spokane city leaders have promised for more than a decade to stop the flow of raw sewage into the Spokane River by 2018. But with five years left until that state-mandated target, the city is abandoning the goal, as well as a $350 million plan to reach it and the accompanying rate increases that would pay for it.
Instead, Mayor David Condon and city utility officials are crafting new proposals that they say will be complete by the same Dec. 31, 2017, deadline and could potentially cost half as much.
City officials hope state regulators will agree that the new plan could produce even greater improvement in the health of the Spokane River and agree to delay the deadline.
The city is essentially offering regulators a trade.
Instead of capturing all raw sewage flows from remaining pipes by 2018 – as is currently required – the city proposes alleviating just 40 percent of that problem but tackling a separate environmental concern: the flow of untreated stormwater runoff. The city has no obligation to deal with the stormwater runoff under the current deadline but would halt about half of the untreated stormwater flow into the river under its new proposal.
State regulators are intrigued enough to entertain changes to the city’s permit.
Grant Pfeifer, regional director for the Department of Ecology, which oversees the city’s wastewater permit, said new suggestions for flexibility from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency makes changes possible in city wastewater restrictions and deadlines.
“That kind of deliberate review and consideration is worthwhile in my view,” he said.
Environmentalists focused on the Spokane River are divided on the city’s tentative plans. Some are excited, while others are hopeful yet skeptical. Some are dismayed, questioning the late change of plans and warning that violating promises made by city administrators as early as 2000 and as recently as last year could force Spokane into costly lawsuits.
Separating flows used to be the answer
Spokane, like hundreds of other cities, is struggling to stop discharging untreated wastewater from sewers that overflow when it rains or when snow melts quickly.
Last year, 20 million gallons of sewage mixed with stormwater flowed from more than 20 pipes into the river during rain or snowmelt. Most steady rains in Spokane produce some kind of flow of untreated sewage to the river.
Stormwater includes metals, like copper and zinc, that are on streets from the wearing down of vehicle brake pads and tires. Such metals can be toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.
Combined sewage is often 90 percent stormwater, Spokane Wastewater Management Director Dale Arnold said. The rest is “sanitary sewage” that’s considered an immediate health threat from fecal contamination. Sanitary sewage also includes pharmaceuticals that didn’t break down within digestive systems, which studies show can be harmful to the reproductive systems of fish and other animals.
The city solved most of its problem from “combined sewer overflows” in the 1980s by installing separate storm sewers on most of the North Side. Before those projects, 570 million gallons of combined sewage flowed untreated into the river in an average year, according to city statistics. After storm sewers were installed, that average fell to about 80 million gallons.
The geography of the South Hill, where most of the city’s combined sewers remain, makes completing a similar project there significantly more expensive.
Even if money weren’t an object, storm sewers have lost favor as a solution because of the contaminants stormwater contains.
Arnold said the city likely would not have embarked on the $50 million stormwater separation program, paid for mostly by the federal government, if officials knew then what they know now.
Since the late 1990s, the city’s strategy to solve its remaining problem has been to build giant underground tanks where sewage can be diverted during storms and stored until it can be treated. By the end of this year four tanks will be operational, handling the overflow from nine sewers that used to flow into the river during rainstorms. In extreme storms those tanks still could overflow to the river, but the tanks, one of which has been operational for about a decade, have yet to do so. Together, the four tanks prevent an average of 10 million gallons of untreated water from flowing into the river each year.
Current rules require that the city reduce spills of raw sewage to one per year for each of the 20 pipes that flow to the river from sewers that handle both sanitary sewage and stormwater.
Right now, those pipes collectively spill into the river more than 100 times a year. In years with above-average rainfall, they’ve spilled well over 300 times, pouring more than 100 million untreated gallons into the river.
The city had been working to build tanks by 2018 to store overflows from all the remaining combined sewage pipes that lead to the river or to Latah Creek.
A shift in plans
The city’s new path will include completing three major projects by the end of 2017. Two would stop the flow from combined sewers into the river: one serves downtown and empties under the Monroe Street Bridge on the south side of the river, and the other serves southeast Spokane. Together they comprise about 40 percent of the raw sewage flowing into the river from combined sewers.
At the same time, the city would tackle a problem it’s not required to solve. Sewer officials say they will stop the flow from its largest stormwater outfall, called the Cochran outfall because it flows from a large pipe under Cochran Avenue. It discharges an average of 500 million gallons a year, which is about half of all the stormwater that flows into the river from the city’s nearly 100 stormwater outfalls. In exchange, the city hopes that the state will extend the deadline for stopping the flow from about 18 combined sewers. With the extra time, the city says it would design cheaper solutions to stop those flows.
The city will address “six times what we would have,” Arnold, the city wastewater director, said of the new plan.
By addressing the Cochran outfall there’s no debating that the city’s new plan would stop significantly more untreated water from flowing into the river than the old plan. But the city has yet to offer proof that the new concept will prevent more pollution from entering the river.
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, which runs the Spokane Riverkeeper program, said a lot of analysis will be needed to consider the trade-offs between addressing the Cochran outfall’s stormwater and delaying the fix for 18 or so combined sewage pipes.
Before endorsing the new plan, the community needs to know how long the city plans to push the deadline for fixing those pipes, he said.
“This may buy us some additional time, but we still need to get there,” Eichstaedt said.
Arnold acknowledges that the city has little data showing how much pollution is flowing into the river from the Cochran outfall, in large part because state regulations have never required the city to deal with it. More extensive testing will be done in the next several months. A detailed plan will be ready by the end of 2013, he said.
Utilities Director Rick Romero said the old plan ignored stormwater pollution even though evidence is increasing that it is harmful to rivers and streams. The new plan deals with the largest problems first.
Nat Scholz, research zoologist for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said stormwater is considered to be the No. 1 source of pollution coming into Puget Sound.
“Stormwater is a conduit for a very large number of pollutants that reflect upon many aspects of everyday life, from driving a car to maintaining our lawns to what we build our homes with,” Scholz said.
He is studying the effect of stormwater pollutants on salmon and ways to prevent the pollution from entering waterways.
Alternative methods eyed
Mike Peterson, executive director of the Lands Council, said his group has been pushing the city to find a new path to solving its combined overflows but found resistance from the city until this year.
“A lot of other cities have realized that building these giant tanks isn’t the way to go,” he said. The new plan is a better way of removing pollutants such as PCBs from the river because it includes the Cochran stormwater discharges, he said.
“They clearly were not going to make that deadline no matter what,” Peterson said. “My interest is from where we are right now, what is the smartest thing we can do?”
In the next year, the city will be formalizing ideas for stopping the flow from the Cochran outfall. Those include capturing the stormwater for irrigation and building stormwater gardens along streets to direct the water into the ground. The city may also promote the use of “permeable pavement” so rain can find its way to the soil.
The city has experimented with alternative concepts. When Lincoln Street was rebuilt on the South Hill in 2010, part of the project included a $700,000 change to the stormwater system. Instead of flowing into the combined sewers, rain flows into storm gardens. Water that makes it through the gardens flows into a pipe that leads into the pond at Cannon Hill Park.
A similar project was built along Broadway Avenue west of the Spokane County Courthouse.
Romero said his team is examining locations where fixing storm problems could bring savings in fixing streets or adding sidewalks.
For instance, if storm gardens are used, the city could pick streets where the curbs already need to be fixed. If a street needs to be repaved, it’s a better candidate to experiment with permeable pavement than a newly repaired street.
Rachael Paschal Osborn, coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Spokane River Project, said alternative ways of handling stormwater can be effective, but they also are expensive and can be complicated by Spokane’s unique geography and position over the aquifer. The city has not been committed to stopping the flow of raw sewage into the river, she said.
“They were given a very long implementation period,” she said. “The problem is we have tremendous turnover in elected leaders in this community who don’t get it that they are bound by the decisions that were made in previous administrations.”
Condon vowed to hold rates
Indeed, the city was an election away from being locked into meeting the current guidelines for sewage overflows.
In the 2011 mayoral race between Condon and incumbent Mayor Mary Verner, Condon criticized large utility rate increases. He focused on water bills but also promised not to increase any utility bill by an amount larger than inflation. During her term, Verner pushed for utility rates recommended by a consultant’s study that called for large increases in 2009 through 2017 to help pay for the combined sewage projects, as well as upgrades at the city’s treatment plant. Based on the suggestions, sewer rates spiked by 15 percent in 2010, 17 percent in 2011 and 13.5 percent this year. Residential sewer service cost $32.55 a month in 2009. This year, it’s $49.64.
Late last year, two $30 million contracts were ready for City Council consideration and would have locked the city into the $350 million plan to solve combined sewer overflows. The contracts were to design and manage the construction of tanks for all the city’s remaining combined sewer overflow areas by 2018.
But when Condon won the election, administrators put the brakes on the contracts until the new mayor was in office. The City Council never voted on them. Parts of them are being renegotiated to deal with the less-expensive new plans.
In his first year in office, Condon held to his promise on only inflationary increases.
The City Council in October approved a 3.5 percent increase in sewer rates for next year. That compares with the consultant’s recommended increase of 13.5 percent. Condon says he will hold firm on only inflationary rises in future years.
It’s a shift in philosophy from setting rates based on the cost of needed construction projects to one that determines construction projects based on what officials determine ratepayers can afford. Even so, however, Condon, like Verner did, plans to finance much of the cost through borrowing.
The city’s utilities department has long been debt-free, thanks in part to state and federal subsidies that largely financed the required sewage separation program of the 1980s. With a lack of federal assistance to help pay for new requirements, the burden will fall almost entirely on local ratepayers. Condon said borrowing makes sense as current ratepayers shouldn’t be asked to shoulder the whole burden for new sewage infrastructure that will serve the city for decades.
Eichstaedt, of the Center for Justice, said if sound science proves the city’s new plans solves more serious pollution problems, he expects to endorse the plan.
“If at the end of the day it’s a greater environmental benefit for them to do something different and it ends up saving them money, how could we argue?”