#SouthPlatteRiver gets no new protections after heated Water Quality Control Commission hearing — The #Colorado Sun

Ducks patrol the South Platte River as construction workers shore up bank. Oct. 8, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith

From The Colorado Sun (Michael Booth):

Colorado water commissioners declined to upgrade water quality rules for the urban stretch of river, though conservation groups say they are finally being heard.

Public officials, conservation groups and citizen speakers pleaded with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission [August 9, 2021] to reverse a 2020 decision and strengthen protections for the South Platte River in north Denver and Adams County, but the commissioners declined.

Opponents of the commission’s decision last year thought they had one last chance in a “town hall” feedback format to urge the commissioners to revisit the controversial vote, which rejected a staff recommendation to upgrade the South Platte to higher water quality protections. They pointed to the recent weeks of high heat and air pollution in metro Denver, as well as a new climate change report showing irrefutable and irreversible damage to the environment, as more reasons to protect the river with tougher regulations…

“We cannot wait five more years to upgrade or revisit what’s happening to the communities in north Denver,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of the nonprofit GreenLatinos.

The commissioners, who are appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to oversee the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said they would not reverse their 2020 decision now. The coalition favoring more protections said after the town hall they would consider trying to force the commission to reconsider through a petition process, by taking legal action…

The Platte River plods through downtown Denver, a small workhorse with a big load. Photo/Allen Best

But some commissioners appeared to leave the door open to further discussions and to seek more community input on future river decisions…

Those who want to elevate the South Platte’s urban stretches used the commission’s town hall comment period to attack the 2020 decision. The staff of the water quality division last year had recommended that the South Platte River through north Denver and Adams County, long plagued by industrial releases and wastewater effluent, be upgraded to the next higher level of stream protections.

Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District Hite plant outfall via South Platte Coalition for Urban River Evaluation

The higher level would have forced existing polluters in that section, like Metro Wastewater, Suncor or Molson Coors, to avoid further degrading water quality with any new activity unless they could prove it was essential to their continuing business. As it stands now, those existing polluters have “protected use” status that permits them to degrade the water, even though water quality in those central urban streams has improved in recent decades.

The Colorado division of Parks and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Adams County Commissioners and others had supported the staff request for a river protection upgrade. The water commissioners rejected the idea last year, and then again in June.

Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said he wanted to be frank with the water commissioners that not enough opponents were prepared for the discussion ahead of the 2020 decision.

“Back in 2020 we did not know how this specific decision would affect our river and our communities,” O’Dorisio said.

Jeff Neuman-Lee, describing himself as a citizen speaker for the town hall forum, pointed to Colorado’s air fouled by wildfire smoke and heat-generated ozone in recent weeks.

“We’ve been just degrading our Earth over and over and over again, and we can’t tolerate any more,” he said. “It’s depressing to see that we’re allowing water quality to go unheeded; to create stretches of our rivers and say we don’t care about them, we’re just going to let them go.”

[…]

Sunrise along the Clear Creek Trail August 12, 2021.

Some of Monday’s speakers said they were concerned that leaving the South Platte’s water quality protection where it is now will weaken the current permit renewal process underway for the Suncor refinery, which borders Sand Creek as it empties into the South Platte. The state health department is reviewing and answering public comments on Suncor’s permit application, and conservationists and neighborhood groups want Suncor’s water and air pollution caps cut way back.

“This idea of grandfathered legacy pollution,” Tafoya said, “just because they always have, doesn’t mean they should continue to.”

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