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Treatment plant, or a Band-Aid?
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Unable to decide on how to proceed with the construction of a new wastewater treatment plant, the board of the Pagosa Springs Sanitation and General Improvement District (PSSGID) deferred further discussion and decisions until a special meeting today, scheduled after a noon Town Council work session, in council chambers at Town Hall.

Given several options to solve the wastewater treatment plant problem, the board managed only to agree that more information was required before making a decision on what options to pursue.

So-called “Band-Aid” solutions — lagoon modifications to the existing plant that would minimize environmental violations and meet CDPHE standards — grabbed the majority of the board’s attention due to the relative low cost of the solutions. Those solutions, however, would not increase the plant’s capacity. Considering that current economic development plans proposed by the town and passed by the county (see related stories in this week’s SUN) are almost entirely predicated on increased development and population growth, the Band-Aid option appears to directly contradict the goals of those economic development plans.

Regarding the lagoon modifications, Brilliam engineers Patrick O’Brien and Mark Dahm apprised the board of the limited utility inherent with the upgrades,

“It’s more of a fix or a Band-Aid, if you will,” said O’Brien.

“The Band-Aid solution is predicated on zero growth,” added Dahm. “They do buy us time, though.”

A new plant option, although more expensive, would allow for improvements and upgrades should growth require increased capacity. Nonetheless, it was the expense of the new, mechanical treatment system that did little to recommend the option to the board.

Unfortunately, for the town and the board, stasis is not an option. With the current plant at full capacity and violating environmental standards during the winter months, the town faces a legal situation that could potentially have expensive results.

Providing a visual presentation for the board, Sanitation Supervisor Phil Starks placed seven gallon bottles on the table in front of him, as well as two bags of sludge, representing what the current plant is discharging into the river.

“We’re putting over seven gallons of ammonia into river each day,” Starks said, “and although humans can handle that level, the marine life in the river cannot. And that is what we’re putting into our environment.”

Conversely, Starks said, the proposed new mechanical facility would discharge less than a gallon of ammonia into the river each day, a point Starks made to advocate for the necessity of a new treatment facility.

If that point was lost on the board, it has not been lost on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), nor has it escaped the attention of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD). As late as April of this year, Pagosa Springs continued to violate standards for ammonia levels — a situation that led CDPHE to mandate the construction of a new plant in 2006. Although Ginny Torrez, representative from the Compliance Monitoring and Data Management Unit of CDPHE stated Pagosa Springs, “has not had any significant violations at this time” and reported that the April 2009 violation was “relatively minor,” Torrez did say that CDPHE was, “... watching the situation very closely,” in regard to further violations.

In a letter dated June 26, 2009, PAWSD Assistant Manager Gene Tautges expressed concerns by the district to CDPHE regarding the town’s inability to make progress on a new plant. “As you may be aware,” the letter stated, “the PSSGID effluent discharge point into the San Juan River is approximately 1.22 miles upstream of the PAWSD raw water intake for our San Juan Water Treatment Plant. Our concerns currently, and into the future of course, surround the effect that the inadequately treated effluent will have on the PAWSD potable water supply, especially in times of drought when in stream flows in the river are dramatically reduced.”

Although the board could not be oblivious to exigency of the situation, time and again conversation devolved beyond the necessity of building a plant and back to a reluctance to act in any capacity.

Finally, seemingly flustered by the lack of progress, council member Shari Pierce asked the Brilliam engineers what, were they in the board’s shoes, would they do.

“We really wouldn’t do anything different,” replied O’Brien, referring to the pursuit of the mechanical treatment plant that had been originally engineered.

Nonetheless, rejecting the Brilliam recommendation, council member Don Volger made a motion to have Brilliam develop cost estimates on the two Band-Aid solutions, with work not to exceed $5,000 (in developing the estimates). The motion passed with council members Pierce and Mark Weiler opposing.

The board will hear Brilliam’s estimates during its special meeting at noon today and could make a decision on how to proceed regarding fixing the current treatment plant’s problems.

jim@pagosasun.com