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Solution, impossible

by Rick Thomas
| June 27, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - Water, water everywhere, it's enough to make you drink.

Especially if you are charged with cleaning up the hundreds of thousands of gallons used by every man, woman and child in the United States every year, to unprecedented standards. And with creating the jobs and tax base the economy desperately needs.

Two states and their respective agencies, along with federal and tribal overseers of the waters of the inland Northwest, have for years been arguing about what the standards for discharges of treated wastewater into the Spokane River should be, and time is running out to decide how to meet those standards.

"If we don't get this ironed out by 2012, we will have to tell prospects for business we can't provide the services," said Clay Larkin, mayor of Post Falls.

The question is about TMDL, or total maximum daily load, of phosphorus that can be legally dumped into the water. One panelist had another suggestion for the acronym - "Too many damn lawyers."

The city of Coeur d'Alene will likely double in the coming 25 to 30 years, but it will take careful planning to maintain the quality of life, said Tom Murphy, Senior Fellow with the Urban Land Institute.

Murphy was the keynote speaker at a forum at the Parkside Event Center on Thursday morning, where the hot topic was the issue of meeting wastewater standards.

"If we can't solve this issue, our growth stops," said Deanna Goodlander, Coeur d'Alene City Councilwoman.

Idaho is being asked to meet more stringent standards for discharges than Washington, a standard that was set by the Washington Department of Ecology and approved in May by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new standard for phosphorus discharge is 36 parts per billion for Idaho wastewater facilities and 42 parts per billion for Spokane.

"TMDL is a major, major problem," Larkin said. "It is a train wreck just coming around the curve, a disaster waiting to happen."

The economic loss could be $2 billion over 10 to 15 years in lost jobs and income, he said.

It is not just the cost of meeting the standards, it is the science that is the biggest roadblock.

"There is no technology in existence today that would meet the standards set by the Department of Ecology," Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said.

And, he said, even what systems are available do not come online overnight. The states only have a year or two to meet the standards. The discussions have gone on for eight years, with new figures frequently entering the picture, meaning rehashing of issues over and over, he said.

"It is the biggest challenge in the Northwest," Mielke said. "Unless we can figure out how to deal with it we are all kinds of stuck."

Whatever efforts are taken to meet the best standards that can be met will be costly, Larkin said.

"We need to get it right the first time," he said. "If we bond for $40 million for the first phase, and say 'we've spent it on unproven technology,' we are not going to be able to go back and ask for another $60 million. You can only go to the well so many times."

And figuring it out needs to be a top priority, Murphy said.

"You have a remarkable community," he said. "Will it remain remarkable or be loved to death? Will it extend all the way to Washington? Will you give up your quality of life because it has not been developed properly?"

The former mayor of Pittsburgh warned that water and infrastructure will be the top priorities of civic leaders in the coming years.

"What a city," he said after touring Coeur d'Alene. "You could be the poster child for what everybody wants to be. This is the type of place we encourage people to build."

The U.S. is using about 655,000 gallons of water per year, per capita, twice the global average, he said, and conservation is one of the keys to solving the problem of waste.

Getting all the agencies setting the standards on the same page is critical, all agreed, and EPA, Washington Department of Ecology and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and all other stakeholders need to resolve their differences.

In spite of his pessimism and concern about the potential economic ramifications if a solution is not reached, Larkin said the forum did reinforce that idea.

"We probably moved it to the next level," he said. "We need to focus on one core group."

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