Sterling councillors are asking voters to fund a new wastewater treatment plant

Photograph of Main Street in Sterling Colorado facing north taken in the 1920s.

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Sara Waite):

At their regular meeting Tuesday, the Sterling City Council approved a resolution asking voters to take out a loan of up to $37 million to replace aging infrastructure and address “inflow and infiltration” issues. The interest rate on the bond would not exceed 3.25 percent.

City Manager Don Saling assured the council that the actual debt and interest rates should be less than the city is asking for, but the cost of the project has not been completely nailed down, and interest rates are also fluctuating. Because of that, he said, “limits were set conservatively.”

Repaying the wastewater bond will require city sewer rates to go up, but how much has not been identified. The council has been awaiting the results of a rate study for water and sewer services that looked at infrastructure needs, debt service and operational costs, but an evaluation of the wastewater treatment system done in 2016 by engineering firm Mott MacDonald suggested they go up $23. Since then, the city has implemented flat rate hikes annually, in anticipation of higher rates to pay for the required system upgrades.

The ballot question specifies infrastructure improvements that include changes to the headworks building, which suffered extensive flood damage in 2013; replacing the existing force main and constructing a redundancy in case of failures; modifications to the main plant; lift station replacements and corrective measures for the collection system. One of the problems the system has is leaks from the storm sewer system that can flood the wastewater lines and disrupt the treatment process after heavy rain events.

Failure to make the improvements could result in hefty fines from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as much as $10,000 from the date of the first violation in November 2017.

@Denver Water, Aurora in dispute with state over lead treatment — @WaterEdCO

Roman lead pipe — Photo via the Science Museum

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Denver Water and three other organizations are seeking to overturn a state order that directs Denver to adopt a strict new treatment protocol preventing lead contamination in drinking water.

Denver is not in violation of the federal law that governs lead, but it has been required to monitor and test its system regularly since 2012 after lead was discovered in a small sample of water at some of its customers’ taps.

In March of this year, after Denver completed a series of required tests and studies, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) ordered the utility to implement a treatment protocol that involves adding phosphates to its system. It has until March of 2020 to implement the new process.

Denver, which serves 1.4 million people in the metro area, has proposed instead using an approach that balances the PH levels in its treated water and expands a program replacing lead service lines in the city. Old lead service lines are a common source of lead in drinking water.

Treating lead and copper in water systems is a complex undertaking governed by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. In Denver, for instance, there is no lead in the water supply when it leaves the treatment plant. But it can leach into the supply via corrosion as water passes through lead delivery lines and pipes in older homes. Denver has 58,000 lead service lines in its system. Lead has continued to appear in samples it has taken at some customers’ taps, according to court filings, though not at levels that would constitute a violation of the federal law.

Eighty-six samples taken since 2013 have exceeded 15 micrograms per liter, including one tap sample which measured more than 400 micrograms per liter, according to court filings. The 15-microgram-per-liter benchmark is the level at which utilities must take action, including public education, corrosion studies, additional sampling and possible removal of lead service lines.

In response to the state’s order, the City of Aurora, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District and the nonprofit Greenway Foundation, which works to protect the South Platte River, sued to overturn it, concerned that additional phosphates will hamper their ability to meet their own water treatment requirements while also hurting water quality in the South Platte. Denver joined the suit in May.

Because Denver Water services numerous other water providers in the metro area and participates in a major South Metro reuse project known as WISE, short for Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, anything that changes the chemical profile of its water affects dozens of communities and the river itself.

Among the plaintiffs’ concerns is that phosphate levels in water that is discharged to the river have to be tightly controlled under provisions of the Clean Water Act. If phosphate levels in domestic water rise, wastewater treatment protocols would have to be changed, potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, according to a report by the Denver-based, nonpartisan Water Research Foundation.

From an environmental perspective, any increased phosphate in the South Platte River would make fighting such things as algae blooms, which are fueled by nutrients including phosphorous, much more difficult and could make the river less habitable for fish.

But in its statement to the court, the CDPHE said the state’s first job is to protect the health of the thousands of children served by Denver Water in the metro area.

“The addition of orthophosphate will reduce lead at consumers’ taps by approximately 74 percent, as opposed to the cheaper treatment favored by plaintiffs [PH/Alkalinity], which will only reduce levels by less than 50 percent,” CDPHE said in court documents. “This is a significant and important public health difference, particularly because there is no safe level of lead in blood…Even at low levels, a child’s exposure to lead can be harmful.”

How much either treatment may eventually cost Denver Water and others isn’t clear yet, according to state health officials, because it will depend in part on how each process is implemented.

Denver, Aurora and Metro Wastewater declined to comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit.

The Greenway Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

In late July, all parties agreed to pause the legal proceedings while they examine water treatment issues as well as the environmental concerns raised by higher levels of phosphorous in Denver Water’s treated water supplies. If a settlement can’t be reached by Nov. 1, the lawsuit will proceed.

Jonathan Cuppett, a research manager at the Water Research Foundation, said other utilities across the country may be asked to re-evaluate their own corrosion control systems under a rewrite of the Lead and Copper Rule underway now at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The newly proposed federal rule is due out for review later this year or by mid-2019.

Cuppett said the changes may lean toward more phosphate-based treatment for lead contamination. In fact, the EPA issued a statement in March in support of the CDPHE’s order to Denver Water.

“Within the [Lead and Copper Rule] there are a variety of changes that may be made. Depending on what those changes are other utilities may have to evaluate their strategy again or more frequently. And if that is the case, we may see more of this issue where someone is pushing for phosphorous for control for public health, creating a conflict of interest with environmental concerns,” Cuppett said.

Colorado public health officials said they’re hopeful an agreement can be reached, but that they have few options under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act’s Lead and Copper Rule.

“The [Lead and Copper Rule] is a very prescriptive, strict rule,” said Megan Parish, an attorney and policy adviser to CDPHE. “It doesn’t give us a lot of discretion to consider things that Metro Wastewater would have liked us to consider.”

@WaterEdCO “Fresh Water News’: Aurora’s recycled water plant running at full-tilt

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Aurora’s futuristic recycled water project — Prairie Waters— is running at full-tilt for the first time in its eight-year history, a move designed to make the city’s water supplies last longer in the face of severe drought conditions.

“We’re pushing it as hard as we can,” said Greg Baker, a spokesman for Aurora Water.

In February, as mountain snows failed to accumulate, Baker said the city began mobilizing to ramp up plant operations, knowing its reservoirs would likely not fill this summer. “We were very worried.”

By April, Prairie Waters was running at full speed, generating 9.7 million gallons a day (MGD), up from 5.1 MGD last summer, a 90 percent increase in production.

“We could possibly push it to 10 MGD,” said Ann Malinaro, a chemist and treatment specialist with Prairie Waters, “but we consider 9.7 MGD full capacity.”

[…]

“Prairie Waters was huge, not just in terms of volume, but also because it’s really helped us advance as a state in accepting potable [drinkable] reused water,” Belanger said. “Historically, there has been a yuck factor. But Prairie Waters has helped folks understand how systems can be designed so they are safe and effective.” [Laura Belanger]

Twenty-five Colorado cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Louisville, operate recycled water facilities, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but that water is used primarily to water parks, golf courses and to help cool power plants, among other nonpotable, or non-drinkable, uses.

But Aurora, faced with fast-growth and a shortage of water, realized more than a decade ago that reusing its existing supplies and treating them to drinking water standards was the only way to ensure it could provide enough water for its citizens.

Completed in 2010, the Prairie Waters Project recaptures treated wastewater from the South Platte River and transports it back to Aurora through a series of underground wells and pipelines. As the water makes its 34-mile journey from a point near Brighton back to the metro area through subsurface sand and gravel formations, it undergoes several rounds of natural cleansing.

Once it reaches the Prairie Waters treatment facility near Aurora Reservoir, it runs through a series of high-tech purification processes using carbon filters, UV light and chlorine, among other chemicals. Then, before it is delivered to homes, the reused water is mixed with the city’s other supplies, which derive from relatively clean mountain snowmelt that is carried down from the mountains.

Sterling voters will likely be asked to decide bonding for wastewater infrastructure in November

Wastewater Treatment Process

From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Sara Waite):

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.

New #Colorado rules prompt Garfield County to update septic system rules

Septic system

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.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy is working to get Cattle Creek off the 303(d) list

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

From Aspen 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.

Fountain Creek: Lower Ark and other agencies wonder if the @EPA will stay the course on lawsuit v. #ColoradoSprings

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

…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.