Leaders from local cities believe recent investments in municipal wastewater treatment facilities were not made in vain, even as the new administration in Washington, D.C., appears poised to roll back federal environmental regulations.
Though President Donald Trump and members of Congress announced plans to loosen regulations enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, Treasure Valley cities are still spending millions of dollars to meet current wastewater treatment standards.
“We’ve gotten no indication from our regulatory agencies ... that there are any changes pending,” Meridian Public Works Director Dale Bolthouse said. “We are proceeding ahead on what we know today.”
Each municipality or company that treats and releases wastewater into the rivers and waters of the U.S. must get a permit to discharge into those waterways. The terms of that permit specify how clean the treated water must be. At the moment, scores of treatment plants around the country are being upgraded to meet more stringent environmental standards.
Over the next 10 years, Meridian is on track to spend $160 million to expand and improve its wastewater treatment plant, according to city engineer Warren Stewart. About half of that cost is related to population growth, but the other half, roughly, is related to meeting stricter federal rules, he said.
Caldwell’s updates in the next two years will cost around $16 million. Nampa’s decade-long plan for upgrades, already underway, will cost between $200 million and $250 million.
The standards are set by the EPA and, starting next year, the discharge permits in Idaho will be administered by the Department of Environmental Quality.
“As the Treasure Valley and Magic Valley and other areas of Idaho see increased growth, we’re going to see that we need to treat our water to a higher level,” said Mary Anne Nelson, who manages the Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program with the DEQ.
Nelson’s program issues five-year wastewater treatment permits to cities. The new permit standards require lower levels of certain nutrients, such as phosphorus, in treated wastewater, which ends up in creeks and rivers.
“The water quality criteria are there to protect aquatic life,” Nelson said. “They’re there to protect human health.”
Nampa and Caldwell recently received new permits, and Meridian expects its permit to be finalized any day. Greenleaf’s permit is in the draft stage.
The new standards will require some cities to invest in upgrades and improvements, Nelson said. Those investments are still sound, she added, even with a new administration in the White House.
“Water quality criteria ... go through the extensive rule-making process, both on the federal level and on the state level,” Nelson said. “So the likelihood that those are going to change in the near term is pretty small.”
Nampa Public Works Director Michael Fuss said even if regulations are loosened at the federal level, they probably would not come in time to make a difference to the upgrades already in progress at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
The city received its latest permit to discharge treated water last November after several years of negotiations with the state. Although the federal environmental agency sets the rules, it’s up to the states to implement the regulations.
Under the terms of Nampa’s permit, the city must meet several deadlines for improving the quality of the water discharged from its treatment plant into Indian Creek.
Improvements to the plant will be completed in three phases. Phase I, currently under construction, will reduce the amount of phosphorus in discharged water. Those improvements could be complete by 2019 or 2020, Fuss said.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and then, but we’re going to make the decision on what’s right for Nampa today,” the public works director said.
After Phase II is complete, the amount of phosphorus in treated wastewater will be reduced by 98 percent. Phase III will focus on lowering the temperature of the treated wastewater, since temperature affects the growth of organisms.
Fuss does not anticipate that any changes playing out at the federal level will immediately impact the course the city is now on because the rule-making process can take years to put in place. A new rule may come down from the EPA, but it is up to the states to determine how to implement that rule.
“Which way the EPA goes may change things, and it may change everybody’s rules,” Fuss said. “And we would certainly look at how that affects the permit and the cost of doing things. Certainly anything that lowers the cost of our permit we would explore, but I think that’s not very likely.”
That said, Fuss said there are benefits to a federal environmental agenda that shies away from adding new rules and regulations. He said responding to new regulations takes a lot of time, money and work. The city is still studying how to meet regulations by 2025, and it is critical the city anticipate future regulations beyond that time period.
“Even if the regulation did not decrease, not changing may be even better for communities and rate payers,” Fuss wrote in a follow-up email to the Idaho Press-Tribune. “In Nampa, we would continue the focus on aging infrastructure as opposed to addressing aging infrastructure and new environmental regulation at the same time.”
Over the next two years, the city of Caldwell plans to spend around $16 million on wastewater treatment upgrades in part to meet stricter EPA regulations on the amount of phosphorus that can be discharged into the Boise River.
The installation of a new digester and power upgrades are underway, according to Public Works Director Brent Orton. But, he said the component that will play the biggest role in reducing phosphorus — 85 percent as required by the permit — is a new filter designed to capture more organisms containing phosphorus.
Orton said the filter has not yet gone out to bid. Even amid uncertainty with the Trump administration’s vow to loosen regulations, Orton said the bid will go out soon because the city intends to make the required improvements and EPA standards.
“The end game is right now we have an existing permit, and because it could be enforced, we have to be ready to react,” Orton said. “We can’t begin to deviate from what our permit says until our permit doesn’t say that anymore.”
Orton said he hopes that water officials at the state and national level will continue to carefully balance the benefits of reducing phosphorus that finds its way into river systems with the costs local governments are being asked to spend on new technology and infrastructure.
He said that while these improvements are costly, there may be some benefits for future growth needs.
“It prepares us to make room for more industry, and new businesses,” Orton said.