Missouri sewer districts subject to stricter standards for water compliance

The Missouri Clean Water Commission has issued new rules for water compliance that will require many districts to upgrade their facilities. In spite of the steep costs this may impose on water management officials throughout the state, supporters of the more stringent standards say they are essential to protect the local environment.

According to a bulletin posted on the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) website, the purpose of these regulations is to "place additional protection, in the form of pollutant limits, on 2,100 lakes and 90,000 miles of rivers and streams that were previously unclassified in Missouri." An expert interviewed by The Missourian indicated that a key goal of these limits is to reduce the flow of pollutants into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to facilitate restoration of so-called "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico.

Regardless of regulators' goals, it is clear that these standards will place significant technical and financial burdens on those responsible for managing public water supplies.

Areas will require different solutions, face varying costs

The DNR's new water rules will take effect on February 28, 2014. However, the precise times that different systems will need to be in compliance will vary as a result of the different expiration dates associated with their current permits.

Some municipalities with newer infrastructure, such as the city of Washington, may not have to make any upgrades at all. Washington water and wastewater superintendent Kevin Quaethem told The Missourian that the city "should be in good shape," as its water treatment plant is only five years old and was designed to meet heightened regulatory compliance standards set by the DNR. These requirements largely center on the the ability to remove contaminants, such as ammonia and nitrogen, from municipal wastewater.

However, although residents of Washington will not face the prospect of rate hikes to finance upgrades, those who live in other areas are not expected to be so lucky.

Joe Feldmann, president of the board for Public Water Supply District Number One, which provides water and sewage services in the Krakow area, told reporters that his system's customers will likely have to pay more in the future to pay down the debt that will be accrued in the course of making state-mandated improvements. Although the necessary upgrades are already in progress, Feldmann explained that there is still a substantial amount of work to do and it remains unclear how much the project will cost overall.

The changes are being phased in over time to mitigate the immediate impact on the district's finances. Although the cost of compliance has been covered by standard rate increases so far and no definite decisions have been made about the future, Feldmann indicated that higher price hikes could be coming in the near future.

Some districts consolidating to spread compliance costs

Three sewer districts – Labadie, Beauty View Acres and Gray Summit – and the private property Purina Farms are currently taking steps aimed at bringing their operations under a single wastewater permit. Attorney Dan Buescher, who represents the Labadie Sewer District, told The Missourian that stakeholders hope the consolidation will create an "economy of scale" that lowers per-person costs to a manageable level.

Buescher explained that the overall cost of complying with the DNR's mandate could be as much as $2 million and if each district had to shoulder the expense on its own, it could quickly create an unsustainable situation, with customers' monthly bills rising to about $50 per month in a worst-case scenario.

Under the current plan, the consolidated districts would collectively pay for upgrades to the Labadie treatment plant, which would then service all of their water. That facility was chosen because it is located farthest downstream, which would reduce the number of potential environmental liabilities that would need to be accounted for. Buescher said that he hopes the consolidation will be completed during the first quarter of 2014, but that the process could drag on for months. The deal will require the approval of county officials.

External consultants can help reduce the cost and complexity of compliance

Buescher noted that it may be possible for entities to receive additional time to comply with the DNR's new standards, based on the costs and operational challenges they are facing, but noted that the availability of these extensions will vary on a case-by-case basis. It may also be possible for stakeholders to receive grants or loans through federal programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Clean Water Commission.

Water management officials who are having trouble updating their equipment and practices to maintain regulatory compliance in the face of high costs or technical obstacles should contact environmental consultants who have experience dealing with these types of challenges. In addition to aiding in the design and implementation of required updates, independent compliance experts can help stakeholders craft grant applications and work with regulatory officials to seek approval for any unconventional solutions that may be required.