Colorado tackles nitrogen, phosphorus pollution in water

A proposed new Colorado rule setting limits on nitrogen and phosphorus will help protect water quality.

Proposed rule still subject to hearings and final EPA approval

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Twenty years after the Clean Water Act was amended to address organic pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus, Colorado is moving to limit the discharge of those nutrients, which lead to vexing water quality issues in lakes and streams.

“Phosphorus and nitrogen are incredibly prevalent. They’re in animal waste, human waste, fertilizer, and we’ve ignored it for 20 years,” said Becky Long, water caucus coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

If left unaddressed the pollution causes algae blooms and dead zones in waterways, impacting aquatic wildlife and Colorado’s outdoor recreation opportunities.

Long said she’s encouraged by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission’s early support for the new standards limiting nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The rule is still subject to challenge at subsequent hearings, as well EPA review and final approval.

Long said the standards go beyond simply protecting aquatic life and human health by addressing potential impacts to recreation. More details at the EPA’s nutrient pollution web page.

A broad range of conservation groups, small businesses, and sportsmen organizations supported the new standards, which will ultimately require some treatment plants to upgrade. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agriculture can in many cases be addressed by better implementation of best management practices.

“The Commission’s decision is real progress to protect our fisheries,” said Ken Neubecker former President of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “Colorado has tremendous resources in our gold medal trout streams and accessible reservoirs.  Clean water and healthy rivers means better fishing and quality outdoor experiences for anglers today and future generations.”

Clean water and good water quality is important to Coloradans. In a recent Colorado College State of the Rockies poll, 80 percent of Coloradans said pollution in our rivers, reservoirs and streams is a serious problem, and 78 percent said that Colorado can protect land and water and have a strong economy at the same time.

Conservation and recreation groups believe the standards will help small businesses and our local economies by providing clean water for Coloradans to drink, recreate, and enjoy.

“This is a huge step towards protecting our recreation industry here in Colorado,” said Jon Kahn with Confluence Kayaks along the South Platte River in Denver, “my customers really notice poor water quality and when they stop recreating on our rivers, they stop frequenting my business. Good water quality is good for business.”

Phosphorus has been identified as a potential problem in Cherry Creek reservoir. In the high country, effluents from Grand County have affected water quality in Grand Lake.

The two pollutants are a problem anywhere there’s a lot of effluent going back to the stream, for example downstream of the metro wastewater treatment facilities east of Denver, Long said, explaining that the new rules are forward looking and will protect water quality for the next 50 years, as the state’s population grows by up to 5 million.

While she expects some challenges from agricultural stakeholders and perhaps some municipalities, Long said the rules are written with built-in flexibility and can be implemented in phases, as waste water treatment plants plan for future upgrades.

State water quality regulators were responsive to small- and mid-sized communities as they crafted the rule, she said.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the pollution generated in Colorado have impacts far beyond the borders of the state. Addressing the issue of nutrients here helps tackle the serious issue of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, Long said.

“We need to own the fact that this is us causing the problem. It’s not Mr. Burns, it’s us, every time we flush the toilet. If we don’t pass the state rule, we could meet the same fate as Florida. The EPA will write a rule that’s a lot more stringent and we’ll lose our chance to do this at the state level,” she said.


3 thoughts on “Colorado tackles nitrogen, phosphorus pollution in water

  1. Urine and proteins are the nitrogenous waste in human sewage, so why was this waste not addressed under the Clean Water Act, since its goal was to eliminate all water pollution by 1985?
    The answer is rather embarrassing. When EPA implemented the Act, it used an essential water pollution test (developed in 1920) incorrectly and of the bat ignored 60% of the water pollution caused by sewage. Among this waste was and still is all the nitrogenous waste, while this waste besides exerting an oxygen demand also is fertilizer for algae, thus contributes to the dead zones, we now experience in all open waters. A form of pollution now mainly blamed on the runoffs from farms and cities. (
    Because of this test, we also still do not know how sewage is really treated and what the effluent waste load is on receiving water bodies, so as long as this test is not corrected we only will waste more time and money on new programs that are doomed to fail.
    The sad part is that EPA already in 1978 in one of its reports acknowledged that not only much better sewage treatment (including nitrogenous waste) was available, but could be built and operated at much lower cost, compared to conventional sewage treatment plants that are based on a century old technology developed solely to prevent odor problems..

    1. Colorado’s unionized ammonia standards and resulting permit limits are pushing wastewater plants at great cost into further nitrogen removal. So effluent is being reduced from 25 mg/l to 15 mg/l under both the ammonia treatment requirements and now the new nitrogen and phosphorus requirements. For the 44 high priority wastewater plants in Colorado, that is expected to cost $1.5 billion. Some rate payers may see significant rate increases. To attain total nitrogen and phosphorus in the 0.1 to 2.0 mg/l range in the next 20 plus years, that may require reverse osmosis treatment. With that 1/3 of the water is wasted as brine, Estimated costs for this level of treatment are $25 billion. All plants exceed these concentrations, currently, so there should be green algae everywhere but there is not. Why not? What is wrong with the scientific dialogue and policy making dialogue that more sophisticated thinking and policy making is not occurring?

  2. Yes, Colorado is addressing nitrogen and phosphorus in water. It started in the 1980s with special standards for Dillion Reservoir, then Chatfield and Cherry Creek Reservoirs. Stringent limits on wastewater plants and non point sources have been imposed. The debate continues on how much reduction is required. The debate in 2013 expanded to the rest of the state. Interim nutrient values have been adopted for high mountain streams. Phase I reductions by 45 municipal wastewater treatment plants are being installed. By 2022 the nutrient values for streams will be reconsidered. It remains to be see whether they will be more stringent or become more site specific. Meanwhile significant data collection across the state by all wastewater dischargers is adding to a new data base system. That data may indicate that nearly all streams are not in attainment of the interim values being considered to be applied to all streams. If these values are accurate, there should be green algae in every stream below every wastewater plant. That is not the case, but why not? Better understanding of the variables surrounding nutrients and when algae is created is being developed. Hopefully by 2022 that understanding will support a greater precision in setting water quality standards without being too stringent and causing huge wastes in public funds for wastewater treatment systems that consume huge energy and produce significant waste volumes. Colorado’s interim value standards are so stringent that the state legislature is contributing to the costs for some of the 45 dischargers. But when 2022 results in the phase II widespread imposition of standards and wastewater treatment plant upgrades, there is no assurance that such funding will be available. The small communities will be hard hit. The cost per capita will be very high. Recognize that current two stage treatment plants will have to embrace 5 stage treatment systems to get to the extremely low levels the interim value standards anticipate in 2022. Thus, precision in understanding and policy making is acutely necessary. Hopefully all future articles will help move that understanding forward.

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