Water-quality standards unfairly burden rural communities

  • The Mora River near Watrous, N.M., which is about 30 miles away from Mora, N.M. Effluent from Mora's sewage treatment plant leads to algal blooms in the river; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has threatened the plant with fines of up to $5,400 per day if it doesn't upgrade its system.

    Flickr user J.N. Stuart, Creative Commons
  • Algae blooms in the Mora River below the Mora Mutual Water and Sewer Association's outflow pipe.

    New Mexico Environment Department

Updated 12/14/11

When Clarence Aragon began managing the half-century-old Mora Mutual Water and Sewer Association 12 years ago, he thought he was helping the environment. Hundreds of households around Mora, N.M. -- a small river-valley community on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains -- flush wastewater through subpar septic systems, sending trickles of variably treated sewage into a shallow aquifer and eventually to the Mora River. But Aragon's 1,000 or so subscribers employ one of rural New Mexico's few treatment plants, a system of lagoons that oxygenate the water while special bacteria digest harmful sludge.

The system isn't perfect, Aragon admits: The lagoons need repairs, and even when they're working properly, they weren't designed to reduce algae-fueling nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorous -- enough to meet up-to-date water-quality standards. But building a treatment plant to meet those standards, which originated in a 1997 environmentalist lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would cost around $7 million.

"This is a community with zero economy and 25 percent unemployment," Aragon says. "Even if someone were to write me a check for (that system), we couldn't afford to run it."

So the EPA will soon revoke Mora Mutual's permit to discharge into the river, leaving Aragon with two choices: Build a new treatment plant a half-mile from the river that would treat wastewater less stringently than the EPA requires and let it percolate into Mora's groundwater -- the community's only source of drinking water -- or abandon his subscribers to septic tanks. "There's no law that says we have to have a sewer service," he says.

James Bearzi, the New Mexico Environment Department's chief of surface water quality, calls that second option an "outrageous proposition," one that "would dramatically increase the total amount of contamination in the Mora River Valley."

But Aragon feels increasingly pushed in that direction. In mid-October, the EPA sent him a letter warning that he was about to incur fines of $5,400 per day because he hasn't fixed his lagoons. Never mind that the state told him several years ago to cease work on that upgrade because the lagoons could never meet the new permit's terms.

Aragon wrote back, reminding the EPA of Mora Mutual's history. But the threat compounded his frustration. "The people who formed this association did so because they cared about the community's health and safety," he says. "Now it's turned into something we can't afford."

Mora Mutual's predicament echoes thousands in the rural West: small, community-run drinking water and sewer associations entangled in state and federal water-quality laws whose terms they can't afford to meet. Even as environmental groups were suing the EPA over water in New Mexico, they were also suing in nearly every state from California to Maryland. At issue was a long-overlooked provision in the Clean Water Act ordering states to analyze their waterways and set "total maximum daily loads," or TMDLs, for pollutants in them. The EPA was obligated by law to step in where those states refused. Tens of thousands of TMDLs have since been set for everything from heavy metals to unnaturally high temperatures. And local governments with shrinking budgets are straining to meet them.

"We struggle with this all the time," Bearzi says. In New Mexico, the state writes the TMDL and the EPA includes that standard in a discharge permit; the state has no legal authority to intervene in the enforcement process. "Every time we go to (the EPA) with a TMDL for nutrients in a rural area, it becomes a problem for whatever wastewater treatment plants are in that watershed. Ten thousand dollars might as well be $10 million to them."

TMDLs have yielded unqualified successes. In California's Los Angeles County, for example, they've inspired laws requiring buildings to retain rainfall and inland cities to install screens to catch trash in storm drains. That's in part because the Legislature went after scattered, or "nonpoint," pollution sources, holding whole communities accountable for what runs off of their streets. "California has done an excellent job of regulating nonpoint sources of pollution," says Alexis Strauss, who oversees the water programs for the EPA's Pacific Southwest region.

Then again, Los Angeles is a urban area, with millions of people to share costs and hundreds of participants to hammer out agreements. When the TMDL for trash in the Los Angeles River was set at an unattainable zero, regulators agreed that simply installing catch screens was good enough. "It was the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law," says Joyce Neal Amaro, public education coordinator for the City of Los Angeles' stormwater program. "And we're seeing water quality improve."

Still, in rural California, state water authorities continue to exempt certain agricultural producers from TMDLs; California's latest water inventory, submitted to the EPA in early October, shows that more than half the state's bodies of water fall short of "water quality goals." Many rivers and wetlands suffer from the same nonpoint source pollution that afflicts nearly every state's waters: agricultural runoff.

"TMDLs are a fine gesture in the right direction," says Joe Gutkoski, the founder of Montana River Action, who cautiously cheered a district court judge's October ruling ordering the state to develop TMDL-based cleanup plans by 2014. "But agriculture is still in the hands of Jesus in this state."

And so it is in New Mexico, where despite a recent, hard-won agreement to control wastewater from dairy farms, the state regulates agricultural runoff through voluntary programs. Few laws govern septics. So the only polluter that regulators can target for a waterway's problems is the federal permit holder -- in this case, a small nonprofit water association originally created to protect the water.

Aragon will likely leverage a $1.8 million federal grant to build a groundwater discharge system, turning Mora Mutual into a nonpoint source. But he'd prefer to build that same plant on the river and expand his services -- reducing overall septic pollution in the valley in exchange for a more relaxed permit for discharge into the river. The EPA has already rejected that proposal, however, "and with our current financial situation, there's no chance of us getting more subscribers," Aragon says. With upcoming rate hikes, in fact, he may very well lose them.

Bearzi doesn't yet know the answer. "The state water quality people, the local community, our own Legislature have to come together to figure out a solution for Mora," he says. "This is a problem that took decades to manifest. It's going to take years to resolve."

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

Mark Edwards
Mark Edwards Subscriber
Dec 27, 2011 10:46 PM
I have to tell you, statements like the following quote excerpted reduce an important story that needs and should be told to nothing more than a doctrinaire enviroscreed. Exaggeration and hyperbole do not benefit this topic!

<"So the EPA will soon revoke Mora Mutual's permit to discharge into the river, leaving Aragon with two choices: Build a new treatment plant a half-mile from the river that would treat wastewater less stringently than the EPA requires and let it percolate into Mora's groundwater -- the community's only source of drinking water -- or abandon his subscribers to septic tanks. "There's no law that says we have to have a sewer service," he says.>"

Limited to two choices? Absolutely not!, there are plenty of low cost designs that will both de-nitrify and remove phosphorous.

A new permit will be less restrictive because it doesn't have to be a NDPES (river discharge) permit? More unsupportable blather. Both land application and well injection permits have TDS requirements that are equally stringent to protect groundwater. True, it will likely have less stringent NO3 and PO4 discharge limitations...when was the last time you saw an algae bloom inside a groundwater bearing rock strata? Concerned about nitrate and blue baby syndrome...I suggest you compare Safe Drinking Water Act primary standards for nitrate to the discharge limitations contemplated. You will be surprised at how much less stringent the drinking water standard is. Unconverted urea and ammonia from a septic tank is NOT nitrate, the author cites their presence, their effect upon the river, TMDL's and..?

Permits have different requirements based upon the manner of discharge. If the discharge is not to a "navigable body", the EPA rule whose primacy is delegated to the State of New Mexico via the provisions of the Clean Water Act only applies to the current (riverine) site of discharge. If the new permit applies to the new site, it will not be a NDPES permit, so you are comparing apples to oranges.

The current lagoon treatment is of course the cheapest and least effective treatment but to suggest that the choices are as stark as the writer suggests is journalistic malpractice. Mora Mutual's ratepayers already have a 1.8 million dollar down payment. That's money that any other Community Service District would kill for! Their obstacles are not that difficult to overcome and the community should be thankful. Now its time to find a sharp pencil to give them a SOTA plant and some professional operators (plenty have been laid off in this economy) to run it.

Class V Oper. in CA & NV
Calvin Leman
Calvin Leman
Dec 28, 2011 08:33 AM
Has anybody looked at the oxygen in the lagoons? To do this you can ask a scientist to measure it. Three of us measured the oxygen in the Salmon, Idhaho lagoons. We found no oxygen about a foot from the surface. We can aerate our lagoons for about $30,000 with bottom aeration. Because the Salmon City Council did not listen to a scientist, the people of Salmon must pay $4 million instead of $30,000. Lagoons are a chemical system. If a chemist does not analyze the lagoons, how can you fix it?
Calvin Leman
Calvin Leman
Dec 28, 2011 08:57 AM
Here is the oxygen we found in the Salmon, Idaho lagoons: http://treegrower.org/about/Council/Lagoon%20Oxygen.html
Dannie Kemp
Dannie Kemp
Dec 29, 2011 06:20 AM
Calvin, Mark well stated. That is the problem with setting standards in a bureaucratic environment. The one size fits all approach tends to limit resourcefulness. Few solutions will fit straight from the box. Common sense is not so common.
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jan 03, 2012 11:48 AM
Thanks everyone for your excellent comments. @Mark Edwards: It sounds like you have a lot of knowledge about this topic as it applies in other states with different economies and I appreciate your weighing in here. Nevertheless, the choice in this case really is that stark. For starters, New Mexico isn't delegated to issue permits by the EPA the way California and Nevada are, which I mentioned in the story. For another, the kind of denitrification they'd have to achieve — around .3 mg per liter is better than any "low cost" system can do.

No one argues that Mora Mutual can stay on the river — not the state environment department and not officials at Region 6 EPA. The kind of treatment system they'd need to build to do that is the kind the Three Lakes Water and Sanitation District in Grand County Colorado built in the year 2000 for the same reason — and it cost $6.5 million. (You can look up their financials on their web site: http://www.threelakessanitation.com) Three Lakes being a more prosperous community with a vital recreation industry to protect, they could afford that. Mora simply cannot.

But discharging into the groundwater or putting more households on septics isn't such a great idea, either. Clarence Aragon is indeed concerned about the quality of Morass drinking water (blue baby syndrome is a real threat), as is James Bearzi of the New Mexico Environment Department; I think the article was clear about that. Mora's situation is a genuine conundrum for all concerned, and it's not a unique one. Many rural communities are in the same predicament, and there are no easy answers.

@Calvin Leman: Better aeration in the lagoons would improve Mora's effluent, for sure, but not enough to meet the limits set by the state and enforced by the EPA for this stretch of the river. It sounds like Salmon City is in a similar situation; thanks for the comment.

Judith Lewis Mernit
HCN Contributing Editor
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jan 03, 2012 11:59 AM
(PS: Please forgive "Morass," which should be "Mora's." The spellchecker got me.)
Judd Sundine
Judd Sundine
Jan 03, 2012 04:24 PM
There are choices. Our clients find us when they get frustrated trying to find an alternative to mechanical waste-water systems. Any size town with lagoons can benefit from comparing BiO2 Solution to conventional aeration. Below is a brief summary of BiO2 Green Technology. More information can be obtained by email or phone. j.sundine@bio2solution.com
The BiO2 Solution™ system provides lagoon aeration via microalgae (biological oxygen generators) that greatly improves wastewater treatment compared to both non-aerated lagoons and aerated discharging lagoons and can be done at a much lower lifetime cost compared with surface aerators. A diverse community of microalgae is used for aeration of a wastewater lagoon, but does not include the well known blue-green algae that can be harmful in a lagoon system. The microalgae utilized by the BiO2 Solution™ system does not form a surface mat but rather disperse evenly within the lagoon, thus providing the necessary oxygen for bacteria to remove the incoming waste product also known as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD).
Every structure and supporting equipment included in the BiO2 Solution™ is used to maximize the growth of the microalgae and bacteria, therefore maximizing overall wastewater treatment. This includes a microalgae production, a biology control center, a solar mixing system, and associated controls and instruments.
Mark A Edwards
Mark A Edwards Subscriber
Jan 03, 2012 11:07 PM
Dearest Moderator, Subscriber and (Author too?)

You may feel free to withhold this comment from the site, no offense will be inferred and further dialog at my listed email is welcome.

Morass that it is, Mora still begs questions.

I wanted to avoid ultra technical jargon & permit limitation discussions...but since you brought up the .3 mg/L NO3 limitation et al, I simply can't resist...
So, What is the average daily flow and is the monthly average BOD in excess of maximum typical household value of 240 mg/L? I'm thinking 1000 connections and about 400,000 gallons per day, 600,000 in a monsoon event due to I & I.
A package plant with denite could be constructed, but barely with the funds available for the above.

I have no doubt that the ritzy plant a few latitude lines north did cost much more for "asthetic" reasons having to do with unacceptable downwind probabilities. No doubt a tourist based economy would have to spend for foul contingencies or risk smelling like a dairy. The dirty little secret in the reclamation biz is that there are too many engineering firms around and all are interested in selling to you the particular technology that they are most heavily invested in, regardless of its applicability.

The Safe Drinking Water Act MCL for combined Nitrite and Nitrate (total N)is 10 mg/L. If a new plant that simply aerated to consume the BOD and converted ammonia to total N and then was used as irrigation it would be exempt from EPA oversight as NDPES would not apply. My point if not clear initially, is that if TMDL and total N and total P limitations can not be met with a river discharge...discharge to land. Plant a cover crop to take up the P & N and transpire it to the atmosphere (seasonally). Subsurface (just below the frost line) injection in winter and grow hay for livestock in season. Spread stabilized waste biosolids over acreage, till and then plant timothy or fescue (high dollar horse hay). Groundwater will flow towards the river, so plant downgradient or far away from domestic wells.

There are many, many examples of successes to be found and undoubtedly a single or a combination of treatment regimes can be applied to Mora that don't threaten groundwater and public health.

Yes, going back to a septic system is NOT the answer. But to suggest that the options are as limited as the conundrum you describe is far from accurate as well and wringing your hands and writing "woe is me" is hardly a solution either. (Yes! this was my gut feeling from the piece)

Success means that you feed the badger...
otherwise the badger has you for lunch!

Now I promise to leave you alone until the next time you write about the things that I do for a living, (and water reclamation is only one of them).