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Wastewater districts approve agreement to research new plant and potential consolidation


On March 21, the board of the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID), which also sits as the Pagosa Springs Town Council, voted to approve a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD).

“This item will lay out the beginning of a road map for the future operations and maintenance of wastewater systems in our community,” states PSSGID agenda documentation on the matter. 

The PAWSD board approved the MOU at its March 14 meeting.

At the PSSGID meeting, Town Manager David Harris described the MOU as “kind of a preliminary prenup agreement,” saying that “if either entity decides that one side or the other is getting cantankerous and decides, ‘we don’t want to be part of this anymore,’ we can call it off.” 

But, he noted, “I think we have enough good will and enough common direction that I think we can move in a common direction.” 

The new MOU establishes a framework for a potential merger of the two entities, exploring the idea of a new regional wastewater treatment plant at the southern end of Yamaguchi Park, which would eliminate PSSGID’s reliance on pumping its wastewater 7 miles uphill to the PAWSD-run Vista Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The agreement explains that the PSSGID has faced significant challenges maintaining its uphill wastewater conveyance system, including more than $1 million in pump replacement costs. 

Additionally, there remains serious concern about the long-term viability of this system, which has significant problems with root intrusions, pipe deterioration and clogging that result in significant inflow and infiltration (I and I) of water into the system, the MOU states.

The new agreement comes on the heels of a town-commissioned 2023 study by Roaring Fork Engineering that examined the town’s options, including consolidation with PAWSD.

The study concludes that, if a merger occurred, the community might be better served by a single wastewater treatment plant, which would likely be located in the southern portion of Yamaguchi Park, than by the current pumping arrangement, the MOU states.

The MOU specifies that, prior to any decision on consolidation, the PSSGID will conduct an inventory of its current collection system and provide PAWSD with a list of repairs and replacements that will be needed to raise the conditions of the system to PAWSD’s standards.

The agreement adds that the town will commit to appropriating the funds and resources necessary to complete these repairs to the satisfaction of PAWSD.

If and when a decision is ultimately made to merge the two districts, the town will move forward with securing funding and completing the repairs necessary to make its system’s condition acceptable to PAWSD and will continue to maintain its system during the consolidation process, according to the MOU.

For its part, PAWSD will conduct an analysis of if the flow through the present pipeline from Yamaguchi Park to the Vista plant could be reversed, enabling the option for PAWSD’s waste to be shuttled from Vista to a new plant near Yamaguchi Park, the MOU states.

Another major concern, for both entities, is that PAWSD will be required to comply with Colorado Regulation 85 and federal Regulation 31 — environmental regulations that have to do with nitrogen and phosphorus outflows from wastewater treatment plants. 

Meeting these regulations will require costly upgrades to the Vista plant, and per the current agreements between the two entities that date back to 2012, the PSSGID would be responsible for 25 percent of the upgrade costs at the PAWSD-owned facility. 

Town Public Works Director Karl Johnson told the PSSGID board that costs for the engineering services to bring the Vista plant into compliance stands at $763,743, and that the PSSGID’s share of this cost stands at $184,185. Plummer Associates is listed as the contractor for the engineering portion of the project to bring the Vista plant in compliance with Regulation 85. 

“Not knowing” what the exact dollar amount would be when the district was in the middle of its budgeting process, “we did not put anything in the budget for this,” Onsager said. 

The PSSGID board ultimately approved the funds, paying for its share of the engineering costs out of its Capital Reserves Fund at the meeting.

It was noted, however, that this amount would only cover the engineering costs, not the cost of the entire project. 

Johnson explained that the total cost for the Vista plant upgrades, which would include both engineering and construction, is estimated to come in around $8 million, which would put the town’s sanitation district on the hook for about $2 million in the future.

Such future obligated costs of maintaining the current system is what led Roaring Fork’s analysis to suggest that the two entities explore the possibility of consolidation. 

Later in the PSSGID meeting, a motion to approve the new MOU was carried unanimously by the PSSGID board. 

Harris explained that new MOU also creates a “working group, made up mostly of staff,” but that the PSSGID board would need to appoint a board representative to the group, noting that the PAWSD board already appointed one of its members to serve. 

The PSSGID appointed board member Leonard Martinez. The PAWSD board chose Gene Tautges to serve as its representative for the group.

This story was updated to correct Johnson's name.