State Debates New Water Pollution Controls

March 12, 2012

Phosphorus and nitrogen are really important nutrients, for humans, and for crops.  But when they work their way into rivers and streams, they also make great food for algae, causing it to grow like mad and eventually suffocating other forms of life. Today the state begins considering a costly solution to reduce those compounds in waterways. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee says many residents would pay the price in their water bills. 

Find information on Colorado's rule-making for dissolved nutrients here.

Lawmakers have introduced two bills this session addressing the dissolved nutrient standard:

HB1161 

SB017 (killed)


[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report]


REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: The water flowing through Confluence Park in downtown Denver doesn’t look particularly clean; plastic bottles eddy around in crusts of yellowish foam.  Compared to that, high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, known together as dissolved nutrients, don’t sound like much to worry about. And that worries Becky Long of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

BECKY LONG: "Unfortunately, ‘dissolved nutrients’ sound a lot like a Flintstone vitamin, and the reality of what they are doesn’t necessarily connect to people."

REPORTER:  Nitrogen and phosphorus get in the water from two main sources: fertilizers and human and animal waste.  In water-rich states, farm run-off is often a major culprit.  But here in dry Colorado, the concern is cities.  Sewage plants currently release water loaded with nutrients into the state’s rivers.  And Long says the resulting algae is bad news for the ecosystem.

LONG: "They remove dissolved oxygen in our waterways and they kill the macro-invertebrates and the fish in them.  So from an environmental perspective, they’re a really big issue.  These are things that, as they accumulate in our waterways, lead to what’s known as ‘dead zones.’"

REPORTER: The federal Environmental Protection Agency shares that concern over dead zones.  For two decades now it’s urged state officials to start limiting dissolved nutrients in the water.  And Steve Gunderson, the head of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division says that in recent years...

GUNDERSON: "That pressure has gotten greater.  When I go to meetings with my counterparts from other states talking about water quality issues, nutrients are the dominant conversation."

REPORTER:  That kind of talk has Colorado officials worried the EPA will soon mandate that states do something. To avoid that, Colorado is working on its own standard.  They want the wastewater treatment plants serving 70% of state’s population to install nitrogen and phosphorus controls in the next decade.  Gunderson admits that change won’t be easy.

GUNDERSON: "The costs of treatment can be extremely expensive.  How do you make progress on an issue that’s taken years to create, and will take many years to fix?"

REPORTER: Analysts estimate that meeting the proposed rule will cost affected households from $4-10 more a month on their sewer bills.  That increase doesn’t sit well with Gene Michael.

MICHAEL:  "You would say that it’s not all that much, but again, we’ve got people that are at or below the poverty line and they’re on fixed incomes, and they’re literally saying ‘I can’t afford even another nickel.’"

REPORTER: Michael runs the wastewater system in Pueblo, one of many sewage utilities opposing the rule. To understand what it would take to meet the proposed standards, we climb up a massive filtration tower at the city’s sewage plant.  The top provides a spreading view of the facility’s many tanks and pools, and the bare walls of a new filtration system under construction.  Michael says those new tanks could be modified to pull out dissolved nutrients but it won’t be cheap.

MICHAEL: "The extra cost comes in through chemical addition that we’d have to do to get rid of phosphorous, and also the filtration we’d have to install to get rid of phosphorus."

REPORTER:  It’s not just the cost of the proposed standard that Michael objects to.  He says the state is taking a one-size-fits-all approach, asking him to meet water standards that aren’t based on the reality of his river and his region.  And, he points out, unlike most other forms of water pollution, there’s not a direct link to public health here.

MICHAEL: "Nutrients are not toxic.  When you have high levels of nutrients, that doesn’t poison anything.  What it does is encourage the growth of algae."

REPORTER: Algae may not be a big deal to Michael, but it can be a real headache in reservoirs and drinking water systems, which is why water utilities are on board with the proposed rule. And so is the state’s largest sewage facility, Metro Wastewater, which serves 1.7 million people in the Denver area.  Metro’s Barbara Biggs says her utility wants some certainty about what the pollution rules are going to be in the coming years.  And she’s happy with Colorado’s approach, which is similar to rules set up in Kansas, Montana, and Iowa.

BIGGS:  "And I’ve been kind of surprised in the last year that there’s been this real coalescence around the concept, at least in the heartland, lets take this first step of technology.  And they’ve come to very similar conclusions."

REPORTER:  The question now is whether Colorado’s Water Quality Control Board will agree with that conclusion.  The board is weighing all the options at a three day meeting that starts Monday in Denver.