After 12 long years of talking about it, the Clean Water Act might start having an impact on Spokane River water quality soon. Well, within the next decade or two. The Washington Department of Ecology has finally moved forward on a basic legal requirement to budget pollution loads in the Spokane River.  All this time, nutrient pollution has continued to choke the oxygen out of the Spokane River in Long Lake, and has fed nasty toxic algae blooms in the summers.

The Washington Department of Ecology, the agency responsible for establishing a TMDL (total maximum daily load) under the Clean Water Act, issued a final version in February, calling for a 90% reduction of phosphorous into the river by the year 2020.  The tough TMDL, will require advanced wastewater treatment by all pollution dischargers, but will also require more water conservation measures, and difficult non-point source pollution reductions. There’s a 10-year compliance schedule for polluters, but in some cases it may extend for 20 years.

Idaho dischargers, on the one hand, and the Sierra Club on the other, filed formal protests with the Department. In an internal administrative dispute resolution process which was resolved last week, the Department of Ecology decided to stand by its previous decision.  EPA is expected to issue a final approval soon.

In a recent opinion piece in the Spokesman Review, the Idaho dischargers remain upset about the decision, pointing out some distinct unfairness in the way dischargers are being treated by the TMDL on either side of the border. The Sierra Club also remains disturbed by the decision.

In truth, we are quite sympathetic with both sides.

In a simplified analysis, it is a little unfair.  Idaho’s sewage treatment phosphorous effluent standards under the TMDL are 36 ppb (parts per billion).  Washington’s are allowed at 42 ppb. Also, the TMDL may or may not allow “trading” of pollutants on the Washington side to provide more breathing room in water pollution permits for Spokane dischargers.  We’re not sure that such trading will be appropriate or even possible. Idaho, meanwhile, has no such opportunity because it has no regulatory authority to even attempt it.

Meanwhile, Spokane County has plans for a brand new water treatment plant, which will request to be permitted under the TMDL for future discharge into the already polluted River.  We’re completely unconvinced that the proposed phosphorus budgeting on the Washington side of the border adds up, so we remain skeptical that Spokane County’s sewage plant can ever be legally permitted. 

But some of Idaho’s problems are somewhat of Idaho’s own making.  For years, Idaho has consciously chosen to be one of the few states to abdicate all responsibility for water quality permitting issues to the federal EPA.  And the Idaho state legislature has proven it is entirely unwilling to properly regulate septic systems, which are a major threat to water quality in North Idaho.  With such little leverage for negotiation, Boise is as much of a problem for the Idaho dischargers as Spokane.

Still, regardless of the real or perceived unfairness, there are some basic truths about the Spokane River cleanup that will remain.  Whether Idaho is allocated 36 ppb under the current TMDL or 42 ppb as is allocated to Spokane, expensive upgrades to Idaho sewage treatment plants will be needed. New technology will be necessary to meet the tough new standards either way, and sewer rates will go up.  

We are impressed with, and actually quite proud of our friends and colleagues at the City of Post Falls, the City of Coeur d’Alene, and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board for their commitment to clean water and their technical understanding of the difficult issues involved.  We are confident that they will have the skill and technological wherewithal to meet the tough standards, and we will support their efforts to raise awareness, and funds, needed to do so.

Now, though, can we all just get on with it?