No progress on new wastewater treatment plant

Having rejected USDA funding options for a new wastewater treatment plant, the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID) board spent most of its meeting last Thursday deciding to do nothing.

Presented with several options for a new plant by PSSGID Supervisor Phil Starks, the board was unable to accept the recommendation made by Starks, unwilling to face the cost the proposed treatment plant would incur for the town.

The option advocated by Starks entailed a stripped-down version of the initial proposal and would have come with a $5.2 million price tag. The bare-bones facility would have eliminated a blower building (for housing some of the plant’s equipment) and digesters, disabling PSSGID’s ability to compost solid waste and necessitating putting that waste into the landfill, at additional cost to the district.

Regarding the rejection of USDA money, Town Manager David Mitchem told the board, “That process is too lengthy, there’s too much cost associated with additional engineering and too many unknowns.”

Pursuit of USDA grants and loans would have entailed additional engineering to qualify for the funding application, with estimates for the additional engineering running as high as $100,000. Furthermore, had the town spent the money to meet the criteria for the application, the USDA was unwilling to promise that funding was guaranteed.

Having returned to a scaled-down version of the original plant design (short $1.2 million in funding), Starks reported that the design would more than handle current capacity needs for waste water disposal.

However, board member Mark Weiler took issue with the size of the proposed plant, asking, “Why are we building something that will handle four times what we’re handling right now?”

“We need to have a built-in buffer going into this,” Starks replied, stating that a plant that reaches 80-percent of its organic load is automatically in violation — something that had already occurred in 2005. Starks also stated that the proposed design, already off the drawing boards, was based on previous population growth models.

“To say that we should spend $5.2 million because we’ve already spent $500,000 in engineering is flawed investment strategy,” responded Weiler.

Nonetheless both Starks and Town Attorney Bob Cole stated that doing nothing was not an option. With the current wastewater treatment plant having accrued multiple violations and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment having mandated the construction of a new plant, Cole and Starks reminded the board that the town faces the potential for expensive fines as well as a state-imposed building moratorium.

Weiler remained unconvinced that proceeding with the proposed facility was the town’s best option, undeterred by the threat of a building moratorium. “We’re looking at outdated economic models,” he said, “and economic conditions are not going to exist the way it has been the last 25 years. We’re looking at a macroeconomic trend, pure and simple.”

Weiler’s appeal reached the board members. Board member Darrel Cotton seemed to capture the sentiment of the board when he said, “I just think we need to rein it in, slow it down and not be under the gun to make a decision.”

However, having heard Starks previously report that, with average Colorado sewer rates at $17.50, while Pagosa Springs’ sewer rates are $37.50 — about 114-percent higher than the state average — Mayor Ross Aragon expressed frustration that the board could not reach a decision, much less find a way to temper the rates. “I still maintain it would be a crying shame if we didn’t seek some relief,” he said. “We owe it to our constituents to get the best bang for the buck.”

A board work session set for today, was cancelled earlier in the week. The PSSGID board meets again Tuesday, July 7, in council chambers at Town Hall, directly following the town council meeting.

jim@pagosasun.com