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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hard as it is, clean up river

Terry J. Harris Special to The Spokesman-Review

After 12 years of modeling, studying, negotiation, lawsuits, more studying, more lawsuits, more modeling and more negotiation, nutrient pollution continues to feed toxic algae blooms and continues to choke the oxygen out of the Spokane River in Long Lake. The fundamental requirement of the Clean Water Act to budget pollution loads to correct the dissolved oxygen problem in the Spokane River has still not been formally put into effect.

The Washington Department of Ecology, the agency responsible for establishing a total maximum daily load (TMDL) under the Clean Water Act, issued a final version in February, calling for a 90 percent reduction of phosphorus into the river by the year 2020. The tough TMDL will require advanced wastewater treatment by all pollution dischargers, but will also require more water conservation measures and difficult non-point source pollution reductions.

Spokane County, which has big plans for a new water treatment plant, needs this TMDL plan to work. Otherwise, its effluent may not be permitted for future discharge into the river. But sabers are being rattled on the Idaho side of the border. Idaho cities, which also discharge into the Spokane River, are complaining that they are not being treated fairly.

At a recent presentation at the Spokane River Forum conference, the Boise attorney representing several of the Idaho dischargers described the “unfair” nature of the TMDL. Using a series of somewhat persuasive factoids and somewhat selective statistics, he made the point that the Idaho polluters were being held to a tighter standard than their Spokane counterparts. And he pointed out some of the flaws in the phosphorus budgeting on the Washington side of the border – which may or may not allow “trading” of pollutants to provide more breathing room in water pollution permits for Spokane-area sewage plants.

Unfortunately, though, he also presented a transparently biased economic report calling the TMDL a “de facto growth cap.” In reality, the thin consultant-written report provides little more than worst-case, straw-man scenarios based on back-of-the-envelope calculations using incorrect population assumptions. The attorney also argued that there were significant “states’ rights” legal issues with Washington’s Department of Ecology imposing its water quality standards on Idaho. Which might be more persuasive, perhaps, if Idaho didn’t consciously choose to be one of the few states to abdicate all responsibility for water quality permitting issues to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Besides, Washington has been much more aggressive in reducing phosphorus at the source – Spokane limits phosphorus in dishwasher soap, and the state came very close to banning phosphorus in fertilizer in its most recent legislative session. In contrast, the Idaho Legislature has proved it is entirely unwilling to properly regulate septic systems, which are a major threat to water quality in North Idaho.

As an Idaho-based conservation organization, we’re not without sympathy for the Idaho municipalities under this TMDL. The discharge limits for Idaho are indeed more restrictive than those in Washington. For another thing, we’re not convinced that the nutrient accounting on the Washington side adds up, and we don’t think the nutrient trading system will be feasible to implement. We know there will be expensive upgrades to Idaho sewage treatment plants, and we recognize that new technology will be necessary to meet the tough new standards. Indeed, we know sewer rates will go up.

But the standards are what are required to clean up the river, and they are within reach technologically. Ultimately, they are also affordable and well worth our investment. Fundamentally, though, ratepayers on both sides of the border need to understand that there’s a price to be paid if we want to continue to put our wastes into our important local waterway. It’s time to stop the haggling and to finally start cleaning up the Spokane River.

Terry J. Harris is executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Coeur d’Alene.
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