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PS sanitation district moves to buy time, waives fees
Monday, November 22, 2010

Feeling unfettered by federal and state environmental standards, the board of the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID) agreed to fund a study for revised environmental measures, but did not approve plans for an improved wastewater treatment plant, as directed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

Following several years of inactivity regarding a CDPHE mandate to mitigate effluent violations by the town’s current wastewater system, the board had considered many plans to fund a new plant that would meet standards set by the feds and the state, but was unable to find adequate funding options for a new plant.

However, after hearing two options presented by Brilliam Engineering (primary consultants on the project), the board (also Town Council) seized upon an aspect of one of the options that members thought would give the town room to maneuver as it continued to consider future funding possibilities.

That option, a revised lagoon system (improving on the current lagoon system), required a pilot study to ultimately prove the viability of that system for the local area’s discharge levels and environment. According to Brilliam, that option had not been proven for environmental conditions similar to the Pagosa area and would require a pilot study in order to meet CDPHE standards. Furthermore, the district would have to renegotiate its compliance schedule with CDPHE, not only for meeting previously set mandates but also for effluent levels, in order to buy time to seek alternate funding for a new plant.

“We believe this is a viable approach,” said Mark Dahm, an engineer for Brilliam. “We recommend pilot testing and renegotiating the compliance schedule.”

Seizing on the suggestion that other mountain communities were allowed higher effluent discharge levels (i.e. Silverton, Colo.), board member Mark Weiler asked if Pagosa Springs could also be allowed to dump higher levels of ammonia into the river.

“The thing about Silverton is that their river has a higher flow rate,” said Patrick O’Brien, Brilliam Engineer. “However,” he added, “I think we can revise the levels we’re allowed, based on initial studies.”

Those studies, conducted in 2002 (a drought year), based suggested effluent discharge levels on an ostensibly anomalous measure of flow rate through the San Juan River. Brilliam engineers felt that a new study, using data collected from a river running closer to normal levels, would provide the town reason to renegotiate effluent levels allowed by the state.

According to rough Brilliam estimates, costs for funding the study would run about $20,000, including permitting fees.

The current wastewater treatment plant uses a lagoon treatment system which can be problematic in colder climates, like Pagosa Country. The town’s system first ran afoul of state regulators in 2004 and the district proposed a new plant in early 2006. Since then, the town has been unable to secure adequate funding for a plant that would meet regulatory guidelines and meet the needs for growth in the area.

Over the past few years, the district found funding for the new plant from various sources, a mixture of loans and grants. A $1.5 million loan from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA) was combined with a Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) promise of $4.75 million in funding — a $1.25 million grant and a $1.5 million loan (up $1 million from an earlier DOLA application). Nonetheless, total funding for the plant fell short by about $550,000 as a preliminary engineer’s estimate of $4.3 million in 2006 rose $1 million in 2007 to $5.3 million.

As a result of that gap in funding, the CWRPDA mandated an increase in tap fees, from $3,750 per Equivalent Residential Tap (ERT) to $4,400 per ERT — an increase of 17.3 percent — along with an increase in wastewater monthly rates, up 67 percent over the past year, from $22.50 to $37.50 a month. Pagosa residents currently pay 114-percent higher rates than the state average.

Referring to the cost of a mechanical plant that would have accommodated growth, board member Darrel Cotton said, “We couldn’t afford it then and we can’t afford it now. Are we going to saddle everyone with a $40 sewer bill forever?”

If the question of sewer rates weighted the board’s decision, that concern was not evident when Sanitation Supervisor Phil Starks suggested the board return DOLA and CWRPDA funds, money granted and loaned to the town on the condition of constructing a new plant.

Several members of the board laughed at Starks’ request, with board member Jerry Jackson saying, “Why would we be giving away money?”

Reasons to return that money are compelling, needless to say. First of all, due to the conditions of the CWRPDA loan, the district cannot lower customer wastewater rates until the loan has been returned. Secondly, the district pays 5-percent interest on the DOLA loan and will continue to be charged that interest unless the loan has been returned.

Unfortunately, the district has had a less than stellar record regarding the pursuit of money for a wastewater treatment plant. Earlier this year, the town made an 11th-hour appeal to the USDA for funds, to the tune of over $9 million, an offer that was ultimately refused by the town due to additional expenses required to meet application demands.

The district has also been remiss in the pursuit of other funding opportunities. While the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) took advantage of over $9.3 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus package”), the district missed the deadline for pursuing those funds. Likewise, PAWSD was recently awarded a $25,000 Drinking Water Revolving Fund Small System Technical Training and Assistance Grant. Had the district pursued that grant (with a potential for $50,000 in funding, it could have used that money to offset the expense of the additional engineering necessary to apply for USDA funding. Again, the district failed to apply for the funding.

Seemingly unable to fund its way out of potential problems with regulators and unwilling to lower sewer rates for its customers, the board did go forward with a measure included in the town’s economic development plan — temporarily waiving the $4,400 plant investment fee (PIF) for developers.

The resolution, initially proposed as a deferral of the PIF, was met with some opposition from board member Shari Pierce, who said, “In light of the economic situation of the district and the need for a new plant, I think it’s unwise to waive plant investment fees.”

“We need to get on board with the county and, hopefully, PAWSD,” responded board member Jerry Jackson.

“We have to be good board members to this district,” Pierce said, adding, “I would concur with a deferral instead of a waiver.”

A motion by board member Don Volger to approve the resolution as a waiver rather than deferral was passed, with Pierce opposing.

Likewise, a motion by board member Stan Holt to pursue a pilot test and negotiate a new compliance schedule, in order to buy the district time to chase new funding for a wastewater treatment plant was also passed unanimously.

If the district is able to renegotiate the levels of effluent it puts into the river, it may find time to pursue alternate funding for a new wastewater treatment plant. Given previous success with funding opportunities, the board must hope that a pilot study will not only go the town’s way, but will buy a lot of time.

jim@pagosasun.com