The Washington Department of Ecology has opted not to pay for additional research by a University of Washington professor whose earlier work suggested that not all of the phosphorus discharged into the Spokane River leads to rampant algae growth and poor water quality.
Michael T. Brett, the professor, had strong words about the agency’s recent decision not to contribute to a second study costing $75,000.
“I think Ecology is aggressively trying to put the kibosh on the science,” said Brett, an environmental scientist in UW’s engineering department. “… Because the results are complicating their policy, they’re trying to make the science go away.”
Brett said that he and his fellow researchers believe they are close to discovering why some types of phosphorus promote algae growth while others don’t. The work could have ramifications for cities, Spokane County and companies that discharge treated wastewater into the Spokane River. The dischargers face multimillion-dollar plant upgrades to meet strict new limits aimed at reducing the phosphorus flowing into the river by 90 percent.
Department of Ecology officials, however, said while Brett’s research is academically valuable, the science hasn’t advanced enough to relax phosphorus limits in discharge permits. A second study isn’t likely to change that, said David Moore, Ecology’s watershed unit supervisor.
“Bioavailability (of phosphorus) may be a good tool in the future, but the science isn’t there to support it,” he said. “The science would need to be overwhelming for us to make that change.”
Ecology, dischargers split bill for pilot study
The Ecology Department paid for about half of an earlier, $110,000 pilot study by Brett, which tested effluent from six sewage treatment plants that discharge into the river. Dischargers picked up the rest of the tab.
Brett said the pilot results, released last year, indicated that some forms of phosphorus don’t spur the algae growth that leads to low oxygen levels and water-quality problems in the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam.
“For some reason, the algae and the bacteria just can’t use it,” he said. “The analogy I use is sugar-free gum. It has a lot of energy in it, but our bodies don’t have the enzymes to use the carbon” in the gum.
Sid Frederickson, Coeur d’Alene’s wastewater utilities superintendent, said he’s disappointed that Ecology won’t ante up for additional research.
“He (Brett) has every right to be upset, and so do all the rest of us who participated in the funding of round one,” Frederickson said.
“Do we have enough data right now to go out and rewrite discharge permits? No, I don’t think we do … (But) I think the research should be funded as expeditiously as possible. If the permit limits can be relaxed, that will be a great boon to ratepayers.”
The city of Coeur d’Alene is planning for a $30 million to $50 million upgrade to its sewage treatment plant to meet the stricter phosphorus limits in an upcoming discharge permit. The city of Spokane, meanwhile, is poised to spend $150 million to $200 million on new treatment technology that will remove phosphorus, heavy metals and other pollutants from its effluent.
Stricter standards in effect by 2021
Dale Arnold, Spokane’s wastewater management director, said he hasn’t had a chance to talk to Ecology officials about their decision. But if it’s based on technical disagreements, Arnold said, he hopes the issues can be resolved so the research can continue.
Ecology’s Moore said Brett’s research involved a limited number of samples, which raised questions about the data’s validity. Since the samples used water from the Spokane River, Ecology officials also wondered if heavy metals in the water inhibited algae growth.
Agency officials didn’t think a second round of research would produce data definitive enough to result in modifications to discharge permits. To alter permits, Moore said the agency would want to see nationally vetted, widely accepted research on phosphorus bioavailability.
Washington dischargers to the Spokane River must meet the stricter phosphorus standards by 2021. A compliance date for Idaho dischargers is still pending.
Brett, however, said his work followed accepted scientific protocol. He also said that he replicated the results of the Spokane River pilot study in later research done for the Water Environmental Research Foundation, a nationwide group that advises sewage treatment plant operators on new technologies.
“I think they got spooked,” Brett said of Ecology Department officials. “We have a really good hypothesis of what (is going on.) It’s getting harder and harder for agencies to say, ‘This information is beyond our grasp; we can’t possibly use it in our policies.’ ”
New standard used in New York state
In a nutshell, Brett said, municipal treatment plants are efficient at removing simple forms of phosphorus, which algae can use. The remaining phosphorus is difficult to remove through the water treatment process, he said, but it’s also a form of phosphorus that algae can’t use. He and other researchers theorize that the remaining phosphorus is bound up with other substances that are too large to pass through algae membranes.
Brett cited Onondaga Lake near Syracuse, N.Y., as an example of a watershed where regulators have set discharge standards based on how much of the phosphorus is in a form that algae can use.
“I think you really have to be careful when you compare efforts. Every watershed is different,” Moore responded. “The phosphorus limits that we impose on our dischargers are stricter.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.