POST FALLS - After 10 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finally issued a permit to three Kootenai County agencies which discharge treated wastewater to the Spokane River.
The cities of Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls and the Hayden Area Regional Sewer Board (HARSB) have been implementing improved treatment methods - and increased sewer rates as a result - in recent years to meet the federal water quality mandate.
"These permits will improve water quality throughout the Spokane River and Lake Spokane by requiring state-of-the-art treatment for phosphorus and oxygen-demanding pollutants," said Christine Psyk, associate director of the Office of Water and Watersheds for EPA Region 10.
"This will improve habitat for fish and other aquatic life and prevent excess algae from causing a nuisance or hazard for swimmers and boaters."
Psyk said the permits require pollution prevention practices which will help make fish caught from the river safer to eat.
The new limits are among the most stringent in the country and become effective Dec. 1, officials said.
The permits finally give dischargers a goal to strive for with future treatment technologies.
"With the final permit, the city can move forward knowing the direction needed," said Terry Werner, Post Falls' public services director, who retired this week. "Before, we only thought we knew."
John Beacham, Post Falls' environmental manager, said the new final limit of 3.19 pounds of total phosphorous per day as a seasonal average is about 65 times more stringent than the current standard.
The dischargers have a 10-year compliance schedule with reports due annually on progress.
"The compliance schedule spreads the new requirements over the 10-year period with different parameters and plans required at different points," Beacham said. "In many cases, the plans are due either 180 days or one year from the effective date, with implementation of those plans following.
"We have seen technology which is capable of meeting these limits."
The dischargers have built the anticipated limits into their long-term facility plans and have been working on designs and pilot projects to work within those plans.
The agencies have 30 days to appeal the permits, but officials say they aren't anything unanticipated.
"No surprises," Werner said.
Brian Nickel, EPA environmental engineer, said the permits for all three dischargers are similar because they affect water quality in the river the same way.
Local residents have already started to feel the effects of the new water quality standards. For example, in Post Falls, sewer rates increased 14 percent this fiscal year and last year and are slated to increase 10 percent in 2016, 9 percent in 2017 and 7 percent in 2018.
Capitalization fees charged to new growth are also on the rise.
Nickel said it took nearly 10 years for the new permits to be issued because of a lot of input involving both sides of the border. Draft permits were issued in 2007.
He said comments from the draft permits asked the EPA to "better reconcile" the different water quality standards for dissolved oxygen in Washington and Idaho.
"Permits must protect water quality in downstream states, and the new limits for phosphorous, oxygen demand and ammonia are based on meeting Washington's water quality standards," Nickel said.
At one point in the process, the Idaho utilities filed suit against the EPA, challenging its approval of Washington's water quality plan.
The permits involved input from the utilities, the states, tribes and the public.
"The utilities provided valuable input for how we could make the permits less burdensome and more cost-effective, while nonetheless improving water quality," Psyk said. "The public will benefit for years from the investment in clean water that these permits will require."