The problems faced by the wastewater system have become more urgent, as the city is now non-compliant with its existing discharge permit. Failure to move forward with upgrades could result in stiff penalties from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to the tune of $10,000 a day assessed from the first date of the violation last November.
The Sterling City Council has long known about deficiencies in the system; two years ago, Rob Demis of engineering firm Mott MacDonald gave a preliminary overview of some of the problems presented by the aging infrastructure. In short, the system suffers from flooding and leakage issues, and also is incapable of meeting new environmental standards…
According to Demis, the system lacks the capacity to handle heavy rainfall events or river flooding, and also suffers from leaks at multiple points that allow groundwater to seep into the wastewater stream. That excess water damages equipment, overloads the system and can lead to costly permit violations, as well as disrupting the biological process that breaks down the organic material in the water.
The system also is incapable of meeting its existing compliance schedules or new regulations that are slated to be implemented by 2022. It suffers from a lack of redundancy, leaving the city vulnerable to failures that would be “catastrophic,” Demis said, and also uses obsolete and dangerous equipment and processes.
Demis explained that much of the system has reached, or exceeded, its useful life and the problems the city is facing will only get worse over time. As an example, he said the four clarifiers that are in place had been banned by the time they were installed in 1995, begging the question of how Sterling ended up with them in the first place, and one of the tanks has failed and can’t be used.
As part of the presentation, Demis went over the estimated costs, 80 percent of which was for construction and the other 20 percent for legal, administrative, engineering, permitting and other costs associated with such a project. The cost of installing a new force main and improvements to the treatment system itself make up about half of the $31 million price tag.
Demis also spoke about possible funding sources. Grants are not reliable, he said; they looked at six possible grant sources and one they identified as a possibility has not received the expected funding because of low oil prices. A review of potential loan sources showed that the State Revolving Fund would provide a lower total cost in the long run versus private loans, because of the reduced interest rate. Either way, the city charter requires voter approval for taking on debt.
The city’s existing sewer rates have not kept up with the rate of inflation, Demis said. Using simple math, he estimated that residential sewer users’ rates would increase by $23, but noted that the city would have to complete a rate study to look at the more complex issues involved in determining the revenue necessary to make the recommended improvements, operate the system and invest in other needed infrastructure. The council is awaiting a report on such a rate study that was funded in the city budget last year.
During his October 2016 presentation, Demis gave credit to the operators at the wastewater treatment plant, saying they were “willing to make their job a little bit harder to try to find the value for the city” by reusing existing equipment and infrastructure where possible. He estimated that the cost to completely start over with a new wastewater system would be between $45 and 50 million. “We think there’s very good value for the city of Sterling there.”
Sterling residents for the past two years have seen increases on both water and wastewater services in an attempt to build up the enterprise funds and address infrastructure needs. According to City Manager Don Saling, the rate hikes were intended to narrow the gap between where rates were and where they’ll need to be, pending the outcome of the rate study. One big change he expects to see from the study is a recommendation to base sewer rates on usage; the rate would be calculated from water usage in cooler months, when users are not watering outdoors. A variable rate would be more equitable — a family of four would presumably pay more than a single retiree on a fixed income — and could also encourage water conservation to lower both water and sewer bills.
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Jon Nicolodi):
Garfield County is revising its onsite wastewater treatment system regulations following new regulations put forth by the state. Does this impact you? Considering the consequences of a poorly maintained onsite wastewater treatment system, and with approximately 3,500 out of about 17,000 housing units in Garfield County relying on onsite wastewater treatment systems, the answer could be “yes.”
Some homeowners like septic systems because they don’t have a regular sewage bill from their municipality. Instead, they must properly maintain their system, but they have control, and more ownership, of what goes into their system and how much and how regularly they have to pay for maintenance. By only flushing human waste and toilet paper, by properly disposing of chemicals, and by using a compost collection service or backyard system to break down cooking grease and other food waste, all maintenance is preventative. With care and preventative maintenance, septic system owners can save in the long run.
Septic systems go astray, however, when they aren’t cared for. Septic system leakage isn’t a foreign concept to health and environment officials. Toilet water leaking into the ground untreated might make its innocent way down through hundreds of feet of soil before being neutralized by the soil microbes. More likely, the wastewater will leak into a nearby stream, creating algal blooms and wreaking havoc on the balance of water quality in the ecosystem.
If your home isn’t connected to a public sanitary sewer system, you may be utilizing a private drinking water well. This water source may be near your septic system. Phosphorus, nitrogen and bacteria aren’t exactly the constituents of quality drinking water.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division adopted Regulation 43 nearly a year ago, and counties have until June 30th of this year to adopt versions of this regulation that are at least as stringent as the state’s. Among other items, the regulation specifies the categories and type of material installed in and around the leach field, and it requires additional inspection of systems to ensure that they meet industry standards.
Septic systems should be inspected at least every three years, and typically pumped free of their settled solids every three to five years. Contact your local county officials to learn what you have on your site, and to learn who to call for a quality service provider. Be thoughtful about what you put down the drain and how much you use your garbage disposal. Mark the free hazardous waste collection day at the local landfill on your calendar. Practice water conservation by installing high-efficiency toilets, shower heads and laundry machines. Take one more step to being considerate of your local streams, and of your own and your community’s drinking water supply.
FromAspen Public Radio (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):
Roaring Fork Conservancy has been studying the creek since 2015, and water quality coordinator Chad Rudow told commissioners Monday that research shows parts of the creek are healthier than the state thought.
“We’re pretty excited and pretty hopeful that at least a section of Cattle Creek will come off of that 303(d) list,” Rudow said.
Roaring Fork Conservancy has submitted its data to the Colorado water quality division, which will analyze it this year.
Garfield County agreed to Roaring Fork Conservancy’s request for $10,000 to continue studying water quality and take steps to improve it. Rudow said the studies have identified some clear trends…
There isn’t just one culprit; diversions, agriculture, septic systems and commercial development all contribute.
Roaring Fork Conservancy is working with landowners to better manage riparian areas and septic systems, and Rudow said continued outreach is key.
Because there are many diversions on Cattle Creek, the stream doesn’t see a typical spring runoff flow, which clears out pollutants and sediments. So Roaring Fork Conservancy is also working with water rights owners to discuss a pulse flow to mimic spring runoff.
…in November 2016, the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sued, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the city’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit to discharge into creeks, streams and rivers. As a federal judge looks to set a trial date this summer, the state and lawsuit intervenors, Pueblo County and the Rocky Ford-based Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, urge the EPA in a March 26 letter to “re-commit” to the case, suggesting a dismissal or settlement might be in the works.
That would be a mistake, says Lower Ark executive director Jay Winner, because the city has broken promises in the past involving stormwater. “I started this in 2005 and we’ve had three or four deals, and something always goes south,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we have good clean water, not just for now but for the future.”
The city’s struggle to fund stormwater dates to two failed ballot measures in 2001, and City Council’s adoption of fees in 2007 only to rescind them in 2009. In April 2016, the matter became a sticking point as the city prepared to activate the Southern Delivery System, a $825 million, 50-mile water pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir. Having issued a construction permit for it, Pueblo County demanded the city fix its storm system to relieve Fountain Creek flooding, or face revocation. In response, Mayor John Suthers and Council pledged $460 million over 20 years for city drainage work.
In November 2017, Suthers and Council proposed shifting that cost from the city’s general fund to fees. Voters approved, and the city begins collections in July. (See sidebar.)
By all indications, the city is working to comply with its MS4 permit. Its March 30 annual report for 2017 says the city:
Increased the number of drainage structures it maintained, from 53 in 2016 to 70, and for the first time, city workers walked every foot of the city’s 270 miles of creeks and channels to assess needs.
Boosted by 56 percent its reviews of drainage reports and construction and grading plans — to 1,590 last year. The city also rolled out new grading, erosion and sediment control permitting programs.
Launched Stormwater University, which instructs developers, engineers and consultants, as well as citizens, on MS4 mandates.
More than doubled the number of cleanup events along city waterways in 2017, to 88 from 37 in 2016, increasing public participation by 54 percent, to 6,014 people. Those volunteers removed 18 tons of trash. “We now have the capacity and people in place to run the programs,” says Jerry Cordova, who oversees the volunteer “trash mob” events, “so we can develop them and continue to grow.”
Beefed up development inspections, a key EPA lawsuit criticism. While no monetary penalties were imposed, the city stepped up enforcement, issuing 47 compliance actions last year compared to only 16 in 2016.
Inspections are more robust, says stormwater manager Rich Mulledy, because the city has more inspectors focused on drainage issues alone. “If you do a lot more inspections,” he says, “you’re going to catch more.” And the city did. It issued six stop-work orders last year, compared to only two in 2016, and 41 letters of noncompliance, the step that precedes a stop-work order — triple the 14 issued in 2016.
Pockets of noncompliance, such as Wolf Ranch in the northeast, which gave rise to 23 percent of last year’s enforcement actions, stem from multiple adjacent job sites, Mulledy says. “We have a lot of different home builders and different contractors, and they’re all trying to play in the same sandbox, and they step on each other’s toes. You might have 100 pieces of equipment being used by 20 to 30 different companies.”
Mulledy also warns against thinking that no monetary fines means no penalties. “Stop-work — that’s a very serious thing. That is a big deal,” he says. “They can’t work till it’s fixed.” Which is why stop-work orders span only a day or so, he says.
The industry is aware of the heightened scrutiny, says Kevin Walker, spokesperson for the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs. That’s why the HBA instituted “Wet Wednesdays,” a series of tutorials about drainage rules for builders and developers.
But it’s worth noting that builders applaud the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back clean-water and stormwater-runoff regulations. The HBA even funded EPA director Scott Pruitt’s “luxury hotel stay” at The Broadmoor in October 2017, according to Politico, which quoted HBA CEO Renee Zentz as saying it was “our chance to make sure the concerns of our industry are being listened to.”
It’s not publicly known if the EPA’s lawsuit was discussed during Pruitt’s visit, but there’s been no filing that hints a negotiated settlement is imminent. Still, the March 26 letter from the state, Pueblo County and the Lower Ark says they “are now seriously concerned about whether the EPA continues to share our commitment to working together to protect Fountain Creek…”
The CDPHE tells the Indy in an email the letter’s intent was to “reiterate the importance … of remedying the ongoing discharge of pollutants” into the Arkansas River watershed.
But Lower Ark’s Jay Winner is more pointed: “I think there is a genuine distrust that the EPA may try to cut a deal,” he says. “We’re hoping that doesn’t happen. We’ve got to live with Fountain Creek for a very, very long time. Colorado Springs is doing a great job. Mayor Suthers is doing a great job. But we had a mayor before him [Steve Bach] that wasn’t doing a good job, and I don’t know if the mayor after John Suthers is going to do a good job.”
More coverage of the Colorado Springs stormwater enterprise from Pam Zubeck writing for the Colorado Springs Independent:
Starting July 2, billings for the city’s Stormwater Enterprise will be mailed to all Colorado Springs residents and property owners.
The charges were authorized by voters last November under a 20-year plan that would raise roughly $20 million a year. The fee revenue will free up general fund money Mayor John Suthers and City Council had previously committed to its 20-year, $460-million deal with Pueblo County for projects to reduce erosion and flooding along Fountain Creek and other waterways. That general fund money, in turn, will be used for other purposes, such as hiring more cops.
Since the November vote, the city has been working to set up billing procedures. Residential billings, including those for apartment dwellers, will be made by Colorado Springs Utilities, with one exception. Multi-family buildings that don’t have individual apartment water meters will be handled under nonresidential rates.
City CFO Charae McDaniel says water service connections will trigger the stormwater fee for residential properties. Residential fee payers who don’t pay the $5 charge on their utility bills will be subject to disconnect under standard Utilities policies, which require payment within 14 days of the billing date. Utilities spokesman Steve Berry wouldn’t say how long Utilities provides service for overdue accounts, but it assesses a $20 fee for disconnection. Reconnection costs $30 during normal business hours and $40 after hours.
If a residential customer refuses to pay the $5 fee, it rolls onto the next bill. If left unpaid for a period of time, accumulated fees could exceed the usage billings for water, sewer, electric and gas.
“That couldn’t continue in perpetuity,” Berry says. “They [customers] will then eventually go into arrears, and they would be eligible for disconnection. There’s a point it becomes untenable for the customer, and they would be held responsible, just as in nonpayment of any service we offer.” But, Berry notes, Utilities gives customers “plenty of opportunity” to pay bills prior to disconnection.
Nonresidential property owners of developed tracts up to 5 acres will be billed $30 per acre per month; if the land isn’t developed at all, no fee will be assessed. Owners of properties larger than 5 acres will be assessed $30 per acre per month on only those portions that are developed. Portions of those properties that remain in a natural state won’t be assessed a fee. Undeveloped land won’t pay any fee.
There are currently 1,005 parcels that are over 5 acres that will be charged a fee, city spokesperson Jamie Fabos says. McDaniel says when properties are developed, based on monthly reports from the El Paso County Assessor’s Office, they’ll be added to the stormwater fee rolls.
But Assessor Steve Schleiker says he changes a tract’s status only once a year, on Jan. 1, for tax purposes, and doesn’t generate a monthly report regarding development status; rather, those reports merely describe changes to property ownership.
Asked about that, Fabos says, “Although we will be receiving monthly updates from the assessor’s office that show current ownership, acreage, and use, each property will be determined as developed or undeveloped by aerial investigation and through additional GIS technologies.” She adds that updates to parcel status will be made every six months — meaning new, nonresidential construction might not be assessed the fees until six months after they’re built.
Nonresidential customers — which includes businesses, industry, churches, nonprofits and governments, including the city — won’t face disconnection of utility bills, because the city, not Utilities, will collect the fees. Nor will they be assessed late fees.
“We will be going through collection processes if they become delinquent on the nonresidential side,” McDaniel says, meaning a collection agency could be used. If the fees become 150 days past due, she says, “We will process a lien on the property and record that with El Paso County to be added to property taxes.” That procedure carries a cost of 10 percent of the bill.
Last fall, City Council President Richard Skorman said nonresidential billing information should be made public. Now, McDaniel says the City Attorney’s Office has said stormwater fees fall under the Colorado Open Records Act’s exemption for utility bills, so they’ll be kept confidential.
That means citizens, or the media, can’t check how much various tracts are being assessed in stormwater fees.
“It’s an issue I’d like to bring up,” Skorman says, “because I did make that promise, and I didn’t check with lawyers at the time, and I said, of course we would reveal it.”
One possible alternative, he says, would be for Council to direct an appointed stormwater fee advisory committee to analyze and monitor fees assessed to assure they’re applied fairly. “That’s something that we definitely want to put in place,” he says.
Moving forward, the fees can be raised by Council action, but only to satisfy a court order, comply with federal or state laws or permits, or fund the agreement with Pueblo County.
FromColorado Public Radio (Nathan Heffel). Click through to listen to the interview:
A new book puts the Gold King Mine spill within the long history of mining and pollution in Southwest Colorado.
Jonathan Thompson will be at the Book Bar tonight. I wonder if Denver is a bit of a shock to his system even though he’s a sixth-generation Coloradan?
I am so happy to finally get to finally meet Jonathan. His new book, River of Lost Souls, is an important read. Understanding the industrialization of our state over the years will help us chart a less destructive course.
I loved the passages where Jonathan reminisces about spending time around the Four Corners and in the San Juans. He transports you to those times in your life spent next to the river or exploring what sights the land has to offer. He connects you to the Four Corners in a way that only a son of the San Juans could.
Gugliemone explained that the price tag is a “conservative” (aka “likely high”) estimate, and the engineering team is looking into alternative wastewater-treatment technologies that could possibly cut the cost by $20 million. (“That would be nice,” she said about the possible price reduction during her presentation.)
Stantec Inc. — a design and consulting company headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta — is the engineer under contract, Gugliemone said. The company’s slogan is “We design with community in mind,” according to its official website (stantec.com).
Gugliemone added that the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village recently tabbed Financial Consulting Services to complete a financial analysis, along with a Financial Analysis Task Force and the town councils. The analysis will “lay out how the community might best meet the financial obligations before us,” she said.
Water and wastewater projects are covered through separate enterprise funds, which use taxes and service fees to raise capital. At a June 2017 wastewater treatment plant update, Telluride Councilman Todd Brown theorized there most likely would be a utility rate increase to help with project costs.
At Monday’s meeting, Mountain Village Mayor Laila Benitez pondered whether setting up a special taxing district for the treatment plant would be another funding option. Gugliemone said the financial consulting company is looking into that, but nothing has been suggested — let alone decided — yet.
The current wastewater treatment plant at Society Turn serves the communities of Telluride, Mountain Village, Eider Creek, Sunset Ridge, Aldasoro and Lawson Hill.
The plant is reaching its originally designed capacity, officials have explained. Plus, Department of Public Health and Environment regulations through the Colorado Discharge Permit System have been altered over the years. (Colorado Water Quality Control Division stipulations regarding acceptable metal levels in the water also changed in 2017.)
Those variables, in conjunction with an increased waste stream and new treatment options, make updating and eventually expanding the current plant paramount within the next decade. (A 1.5-percent annual population growth has been used to calculate increased wastewater loads until 2047. Basically, if the plant isn’t expanded, the San Miguel River would run with waste, which is a disgusting, vile thought.)
Pitkin County is now the second county in Colorado that can issue permits for graywater systems that allow some household water to be reused to irrigate lawns and flush toilets.
Graywater is defined by both the county and the state as water coming from bathtubs, showers, bathroom sinks and washing machines. It does not include water from toilets, urinals, kitchen sinks, dishwashers or non-laundry utility sinks, which is often called blackwater.
The city and county of Denver was the first to adopt a similar permitting process in 2016, and did so after the state approved guiding regulations in 2015.
The Pitkin County commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance last week that sets up the county’s permitting process, which is voluntary.
The city of Aspen also is considering adopting a graywater permitting system to complement its recently adopted water-efficient landscaping regulations.
Kurt Dahl, the county’s environmental health manager, said a 1999 statewide study found that typical indoor residential uses amounted to 69 gallons of water per person per day, and of that 28 gallons is graywater as defined by the state.
Graywater systems work by diverting household water away from its normal course — toward septic tanks and sewage systems — and into another set of pipes and storage tanks, where it sits until it is reused.
If the water is used for irrigation, the water must be filtered before storage and then, optimally, pumped out into a subsurface drip irrigation system. It cannot be applied via sprinklers.
If graywater is used to flush toilets, it must be disinfected and dyed before being sent to a toilet.
Single-family households can store up to 400 gallons of water a day in a tank for either irrigation or toilet flushing, and multi-family and commercial entities can store up to 2,000 gallons a day.
Graywater systems require double-piping of plumbing systems, which can be expensive to install in existing homes, and so may be better suited, at least economically, to new construction projects.
Brett Icenogle, the engineering section manager at the Colorado Department of Public Health, said Friday he was happy to see Pitkin County adopt a graywater permitting process, and he hopes other jurisdictions follow suit, even if current public demand seems low today.
“We don’t want to wait until there is a water shortage to put regulations in place,” Icenogle said.
The local permitting process begins with the county’s environmental health department, and also requires plumbing and building permits. If used for irrigation, it may also require a state water right.
Dahl served on a group that developed the state’s regulations, and he’d like to see other uses added to the state’s list, such as fire suppression.
“I want to get this to the point where using graywater is an option for everyone,” Dahl said.