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Treatment plant back on track

After appearing D.O.A. last year, plans for a Pagosa Springs wastewater treatment plant has new life, as the pursuit of USDA funding for the facility recently cleared another hurdle.

Addressing the board of the Pagosa Springs Sanitation and General Improvement District last week, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem reported that a required Environmental Assessment (EA) had been completed and that PSSGID would fulfill the next requirement for the funding application: a 30-day period for public input.

That notice is on Page B3 of this edition of The SUN.

If the 30-day period passes without a hitch (i.e. no formal litigation or substantial objections), the final application for USDA funding will move to the USDA’s Colorado office for final review. If that review process indicates no glaring errors or omissions, the application will go to Washington, D.C. for final approval.

According to Mitchem, PSSGID should know if funding is available for the plant by early next year, at the latest.

“I anticipate we could get an answer back as early as December, but I tend to suspect it won’t be until mid-to-late January,” he said.

The pursuit of a new wastewater treatment facility has followed a tortuous and convoluted path over the past several years.

The current wastewater treatment plant uses a lagoon treatment system which can be problematic in colder conditions, resulting in ammonia levels from wastewater that exceed federal standards.

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 had been unable to secure adequate funding for a plant that would meet regulatory guidelines and satisfy the needs for growth in the area.

Over the past few years, the district found funding for a 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 of the state average rates.

Seemingly unable to mitigate its funding shortfall while continuing to accumulate water standards violations, the PSSGID board began courting USDA funding in mid-2009. However, at that time, USDA officials and the board could not reach an agreement on various aspects of application requirements, most notably demands for additional testing, engineering and placement of the proposed facility outside of a 500-year flood plain.

With those demands potentially adding $100,000 in engineering and EA costs — and with no guarantees of funding — the board rejected the USDA’s initial offer.

In the meantime, the town of Pagosa Springs (via its PSSGID enterprise) was billed over $70,000 in back interest from the CWRPDA money, likewise facing further interest charges.

In early 2010, the town’s fortunes changed. Personnel changes at the USDA created a friendlier environment for the PSSGID and it was suggested that the board take a second bite at the apple. Submitting preliminary paperwork to the USDA last spring, both Mitchem and PSSGID Supervisor Phil Starks presented an optimistic picture to the board. Given details of a report that was seemingly positive as far as its potential return on investment, the board gave Mitchem and Starks the green light to renew the pursuit of USDA funding.

Mitchem could not say how much money the USDA might provide for the new facility.

When asked if the funding would meet the almost $6 million price tag previously estimated for the project, Mitchem responded, “The real answer is, we don’t know yet and we won’t know yet.”

Asked if the previous 2007 estimate still applied, Mitchem answered, “It’s likely it will be much higher than that.”

Mitchem also said he did not know how much of the funding would be granted versus the amount loaned.

“I suspect we’ll get more in grant funding than in loans,” he said.

Finally, though optimistic at securing the funding, Mitchem cautioned that it was not a sure thing.

“There’s a lot of stiff competition out there,” he said, “and a lot of communities chasing those dollars. But, as far as need is concerned, I think we’re in good shape.”

However, considering the fits and starts that pursuit of a new wastewater treatment facility has taken over the past several years, “good shape” sounds much better than no shape at all.

jim@pagosasun.com