Wastewater plant project on track for summer

Delays in the engineering phase of a new wastewater treatment plant in Pagosa Springs will not likely push back construction of the project, according to sanitation department supervisor Phil Starks.

The project has been marred by several delays during the past year but Starks said that, despite current delays, “We’re looking at May or June to start construction.”

Previous projections by former town Manager Mark Garcia put groundbreaking for the project as early as October 2008. Later projections by town staff had engineering specifications scheduled for completion by late November or early December of this year. However, Starks said, “The state put us back on the site plan. They need to approve the site plan before we can move forward.”

Several of the previous delays were attributed to permitting issues with the state regarding environmental and engineering compliances. Recent state-imposed limits on nitrogen levels also led to redesign and related subsequent delays.

Starks said he believes state approval for the site plan should come in, “by late-January, mid-February at the latest, but I’m pushing hard to get it done by the end of January 2009. We’re hoping to open it up to bidding soon after that.”

Optimistic that the latest delays will not affect the construction schedule, Starks said the new plant was on track for breaking ground in the late spring and is projected to go on line in the spring of 2010.

Town manager David Mitchem reflected Starks’ optimism for the project’s progress, “After the site plan review, the plans go back to the state for a 60-day review, however, we’re keeping the state appraised every step of the way and hopefully, the process won’t require the entire 60 days.

“We’re set to go on line by mid-2010,” said Mitchem. “The state mandates we have it up and running by September 2010 but we’re confident we’ll have the project completed before then.”

Despite delays in planning and engineering, the Pagosa Springs Sanitation District was quick to raise customer rates in order to fund the project. As reported in The SUN in August, wastewater monthly rates rose almost 67 percent this past year, from $22.50 to $37.50 a month. As construction proceeds and the plant goes on line, those rates will continue to rise over the next few years.

The rate hike was the direct result of the district’s need to fund the new wastewater treatment facility. Over the past few years, the district found funding for the new plant from various sources, a mixture of loans and grants. The rate increase was a condition of a $1.5 million loan from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA). In order to secure the loan, the sanitation district agreed to substantial customer rate increases as set forth by the CWRPDA. Additionally, 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.

The compulsory rate hikes were due to a gap in funding for construction of the plant. The initial preliminary engineer’s estimate of $4.3 million in 2006 rose $1 million in 2007 to $5.3 million. Although the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) promised the town $4.75 million in funding, a $1.25 million grant and a $1.5 million loan ­— up $1 million from the district’s initial DOLA application — total funding for the plant fell short by about $550,000

After agreeing to the stipulated rate increases, the district closed on the CWRPDA loan back on Aug. 29.

The problem with the current treatment plant is twofold: the system in place occasionally exceeds ammonia levels in its discharge during the winter months, and also risks hydraulic problems and violations during the spring when snow runoff can overload the system.

“We need to be concerned about the environment, primarily,” said sanitation district supervisor Starks, “But we also need to be in compliance with the state. If we sit on our hands, the state starts hitting the town with substantial fines.”

For sanitation district customers, delaying or otherwise forgoing a new wastewater treatment plant is not an option. Looking no farther than Bayfield, it’s clear that the state could do more than levy fines for continued water quality violations. The state imposed a building moratorium on the town of Bayfield in April 2006 for its continued water quality violations. Construction on the new Bayfield wastewater treatment facility started in late July of this year at a cost of $7.1 million.

Starks has made it clear that the current waste treatment plant’s lagoon system is over capacity, overburdened and obsolete. The only way to meet state effluent standards is by constructing a new plant with a mechanical treatment system. Aside from helping the Pagosa Springs Sanitation District meet state environmental standards, another advantage of the new plant would be that it would be expandable to meet increased demand.

With a current economic downturn continuing to spiral into something resembling a depression, the town has scant room for further delays in the wastewater treatment plant project, both from a fiscal perspective and a statutory standpoint. Faced with a project that is an absolute necessity and a potential engine for further growth, further delays could prove to be an expensive problem.

jim@pagosasun.com