August 23, 2008

County, Ak-Chin at Odds on Effluent


Flow shift could hurt river habitat

Pima County officials say a concern raised by the Ak-Chin Indian Community about effluent reaching its land could destroy riparian habitat in the Santa Cruz River that is sustained by discharge from county sewage-treatment plants.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said finding another way to dispose of the effluent could cost sewer ratepayers anywhere from $285 million to $10 billion.

But a Tucson Water official said that by forcing the issue, the tribe and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality could provide a needed incentive for area water providers and the county to do more to improve recharge and keep more water in Pima County.

The Ak-Chin reservation is northwest of Casa Grande.

Between the Roger Road and Ina Road treatment plants, the county releases roughly 45 million gallons a day of treated effluent into the Santa Cruz.

The effluent provides a continuous flow of water that feeds a riparian habitat along a stretch of the river which was once dry.

Though the stream peters out a little north of the Pinal County line in dry weather, it has traveled to within 17 miles of the Ak- Chin reservation during storms, said Wastewater Deputy Director Jackson Jenkins.

As part of a regular review of water quality rules, the state Department of Environmental Quality included a prohibition against discharging effluent if it would reach the Ak-Chin reservation.

Officials with the Ak-Chin Indian Community did not return phone calls earlier this week, but a spokesman for ADEQ said the rule reflects the tribe's preferences.

"This wasn't specifically requested by Ak-Chin, but the tribe does support it," ADEQ spokesman Mark Shaffer said in an e-mail. "The tribe and its elders have standards and preferences which the proposal recognizes.

"The tribe already has private agreements with adjacent utilities that prevent effluent discharges on its reservation. This proposal, if adopted, would, in essence, codify that arrangement."

Shaffer said ADEQ is not telling Pima County to stop discharging now, but the agency agrees county flows are likely to reach the reservation in the future.

The agency has not finalized the new rules. The county has asked the state to reconsider.

But John Bernal, deputy county administrator for Public Works, said a recent meeting did not leave him hopeful.

"There would a significant loss to the riparian areas we have been trying to restore," he said.

"We just really want to understand whether we made any impact on them in our discussion. I walked away not thinking we will get much relief."

Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, and Paul Green, executive director of the Audubon Society, said the effluent flows in the river are very important to the habitat that has developed there, but they did not know enough about the proposed changes to comment.

Shaffer said ADEQ will respond to Pima County's comments in a few weeks.

Bernal and Jenkins said there are a variety of solutions if the county has to stop discharge, from damming the Santa Cruz and creating a lake to constructing recharge basins along the river.

Bernal said any solution would have to involve the city of Tucson, which owns 90 percent of the effluent from the sewer plants, and the Bureau of Reclamation. And he said Pima County ratepayers should not bear the whole cost.

Though he questioned whether the situation was as dire as depicted by Pima County, a Tucson Water official said the new regulation could provide the needed impetus to better manage water resources.

Chris Avery, Tucson Water interim deputy director and an attorney who has worked on water issues for years, said he's not sure a wastewater operator whose sewage is treated to state and federal standards can be prevented from discharging just because a downstream jurisdiction doesn't like it.

But he said it was in the interest of county residents and water utilities that effluent stay within the county and the Tucson Active Management Area.

Tucson Water currently gets a 50 percent recharge credit from the water in the river, under an assumption at least half the water filters into the aquifer.

He said that could be 100 percent if the county and the city built recharge facilities designed for that purpose.

"It's in the interests of most of the water users that the effluent not go outside the Tucson AMA, and that's true whether the Ak-Chin object or not," he said.

"I think you could do a constructed recharge project that would leave the channel relatively intact.

"And speaking for Tucson Water and as a Pima County Wastewater ratepayer, I think there could be opportunities to dramatically reduce those costs," he said.

"I certainly hope ADEQ would allow us to give that a go before some draconian new regulatory regime came down."

* Contact reporter Erica Meltzer at 807-7790 or [email protected]

Originally published by ERICA MELTZER, ARIZONA DAILY STAR.

(c) 2008 Arizona Daily Star. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.