From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):
For years, the Cherokee Metropolitan District has failed to meet one of its water quality standards, and the eastern El Paso County water district has proposed a change in state regulations to make it easier to meet that requirement.
The proposal has started an unorthodox process with the state’s Water Quality Control Commission to allow the district to have a higher level of dissolved solids – like salt – in its water. The change would only affect wells in the district, but the proposal has raised concerns from well-owners about the health of the system’s aquifer and prompted three stakeholder meetings before a rulemaking hearing in August.
The Upper Black Squirrel Creek aquifer has already been degraded by the number of wells that tap into it, well owners argue. Wells in the Cherokee district pull from an aquifer that is recharged with treated wastewater – water that, under a new requirement, would have more dissolved solids. If Cherokee fails to change regulations for its so-called “total dissolved solids” levels, it will have to spend tens of millions of dollars to meet current state requirements – a cost that will be borne by the district’s ratepayers.
The problems date back to 2010, when a new waste water treatment facility was completed without machines to treat water for total dissolved solids, known as TDS. At a Tuesday stakeholder meeting, the first in a series, Cherokee’s General Manager Sean Chambers described the consequences of this to a group of around 30 people.
“So whatever comes in the waste water plant in terms of total dissolved solids comes out the other end,” Chambers said. “Thus, we have a $30 million waste water plant that does not treat a lick of TDS.”
The district’s drinking water quality more than complies with state requirements for dissolved solids levels, but the levels in waste water pose problems. The water district typically measures 600 mg per liter of dissolved solids in its treated waste water, well over the state requirement of 400 mg per liter, said Chambers. Ever since the district opened its new facility in 2010, it has never been compliant with state standards for dissolved solids. By changing the level allowed in its water, the district hopes to save $10 million on costs over the next 20 years while it tries to become compliant.
On Tuesday, the district emphasized that dissolved solids in its water do not pose a public health risk, but only affect the water’s taste. Most water districts around the country adhere to the federal standard of 500 mg per liter of dissolved solids, except for Texas, which has its threshold set at 1,000 mg per liter, said Andrew Ross, with the state’s water control commission.
While the water district is aiming for compliance, well owners fear that more dissolved solids will continue to degrade the quality of the aquifer, said Jerod Farmer, a well owner who attended Tuesday’s meeting. Officials with the water quality control commission acknowledge that a higher presence of those solids in water can impact the aquifer’s quality.
Unlike surface water, which is regulated for quality at the federal level, groundwater quality is regulated on a state-by-state basis. Colorado’s groundwater regulations have remained relatively unchanged since the 1980s, when two regulatory structures were set up- one for statewide regulation, and another to grant individual exceptions to the state’s rules.
The Cherokee district is unique in Colorado – it has the largest facility in the state that dumps its waste water back into the groundwater. Its request to change the dissolved solids requirements in its waste water is equally unusual – the water quality commission rarely handles regulatory changes proposed by an outside agency, representatives said on Friday.
The public will get two more chances to learn about the proposed changes at stakeholder meetings on Feb. 11, time and location to be determined, and March 10 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., location to be determined. Both will help the commission gather as much public opinion and information as possible before the August hearing, said Lisa Carlson, who facilitated Tuesday’s meeting.
“The hope is that, when you get to the hearing, you will all be well educated and understand what the issues are in the process,” Carlson told the audience.