At the end of October, Kootenai Environmental Alliance submitted some 21 pages of complex and technical comments to Washington’s Department of Ecology on the proposed plan to establish TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for the polluted Spokane River.
Under the Clean Water Act, TMDLs need to be established in order to allocate the maximum levels of pollutants that the waterbody can handle. In the Spokane River’s case, the problem is that portions of the river have serious problems with dissolved oxygen, and the cause of the dissolved oxygen problem is phosphorous pollution.
The State of Washington has been working on the TMDL for the Spokane River for almost 11 years. The TMDL will apply to Idaho, because Idaho sewage treatment plants discharge into the Spokane River, and according to the Clean Water Act, upstream dischargers cannot contribute to downstream water quality violations.
Gonzaga Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic drafted the comments on behalf of KEA and several individuals living near Long Lake in Washington (available on KEA’s website). There, the phosphorous pollution has caused not only the serious dissolved oxygen problems, but this past summer, the Lake suffered huge blooms of toxic blue-green algae. (More here.)
The proposed TMDL purports to allocate phosphorous levels to the many sources of pollution to the River such that the water quality standards for dissolved oxygen will not be violated. The TMDL is supposed to account for stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, leaky septic systems, industrial polluters, and sewage treatment plants to limit phosphorous to acceptable levels.
The fundamental problem, in KEA’s view, is that the draft TMDL doesn’t allocate the phosphorous pollution appropriately and therefore fails to provide any assurance that the dissolved oxygen problem will actually be solved. For example, the draft TMDL relies on unreasonable levels for pollution levels in tributaries, and it relies on Avista to make operational changes at its dams to get unrealistic dissolved oxygen improvements. KEA is urging the State of Washington to recalculate the TMDLs to more realistic and supportable levels, so that permit limits can be assigned to polluters, so that the process of cleaning up the River can finally get started in earnest.
The TMDL is controversial for the polluters too. Idaho dischargers are worried that tough new standards will be difficult and expensive to meet, even under the draft currently being considered. Spokane-area industrial dischargers have similar concerns. Meanwhile, a new Spokane sewage treatment plant may have a difficult time being permitted at all.
But if the region is to continue using the Spokane River to dump our wastewater, the phosphorous will need to be cleaned up. All the mathematical hocus-pocus in the world doesn’t change that.