Much to the consternation of elected officials in Littleton and Englewood, they seem to have no way around spending $15 million for upgrades to their jointly owned sewer plant.
“We're behind the eight ball,” Stu Fonda, director of the Littleton/Englewood Wastewater Treatment Plant, said during a joint meeting Oct. 23.
Both city councils recently voted to raise customer fees starting in 2013 to cover the costs of construction, slated to begin in 2019.
There are two separate issues. First, the plant is subject to stricter nutrient-removal standards as of 2022; council members are quick to call them unfunded mandates from the state. In order to meet them, staff says design and permitting for the project needs to begin in 2017.
Second, a study showed the plant contributes about half of the phosphorous found in Barr Lake near Brighton and Milton Reservoir near Gilcrest, which causes algae blooms and other unpleasantness in the recreation areas.
“The plant has a responsibility to downstream users,” Amy Conklin, coordinator for Barr Lake/Milton Reservoir Watershed Association, wrote on Oct. 28. “It matters how clean our effluent is because people downstream drink it.”
Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch and a small portion of unincorporated Douglas County, apparently is the reason for the other half. Its director, John Hendrick, urged Littleton and Englewood officials to work with him to get the standards relaxed.
“We are going to take off the gloves, but we're going to do it initially with a gentle, cooperative approach,” he said. “This is a statewide issue, and we need some leadership down there at the Capitol to help us out.”
Conklin agrees a collaborative approach is necessary, noting that half of Colorado residents live in the watershed.
“Gone are the simple days of environmental regulation,” she said. “But if Barr-Milton can pull it off, we may serve as a model of how to bring all sides of these expensive environmental solutions to the table and not to court.”
Plant manager Dennis Stowe said a statewide coalition against the regulations is currently inactive, reluctant to pursue expensive litigation. Gov. John Hickenlooper's only input, said Stowe, has been to ask the Legislature to look more closely at the costs inflicted by the regulations. Engineer Sarah Reeves, a private consultant, said a potentially cost-reducing practice of nutrient trading — similar to cap and trade to regulate emissions — isn't feasible, because there are no workable trading partners.
So customer costs increase with no guarantee the problem will be solved, according to council members.
“You could get to zero (discharged nutrients), and it still might not solve what's happening to the reservoir,” said Littleton Councilor Phil Cernanec.
The study itself seems to agree: “Almost all scenarios examined in this exercise do not result in mean phosphorus and/or chlorophyll levels as low as may seem desirable from the evaluation of possible target values.”
Englewood Council Member Jim Woodward noted that stormwater and a number of creeks affect the water quality downstream from the plant.
“By the time it gets to one of the lakes, will it be better than it is right now?” he asked rhetorically.
Fonda said the last round of upgrades produced water almost good enough to drink.
“When we get to discharging Perrier, is that going to be good enough?” asked Littleton Councilor Bruce Stahlman.