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.