Cleaning up Missouri's small streams will be costly

Saturday, August 13, 2011 | 2:47 p.m. CDT; updated 9:26 a.m. CDT, Sunday, August 14, 2011
New state water quality standards for small streams, like this one near Route K south of Columbia, will force many small-scale wastewater treatment systems to start disinfecting their effluent at great cost. Cornell's Friendly Acres, a cluster of homes south of Columbia, has a small wastewater system that already faces a disinfection deadline.

COLUMBIA — For decades, Missouri's small streams have lacked the protection required by federal law. They are not monitored. There are no firm standards for their water quality. Some are rife with bacteria.

Cleaning them up now will cost millions of dollars.

The state's Department of Natural Resources has lagged year after year in extending the protection of the federal Clean Water Act to the full breadth of Missouri’s streams.

More than 150,000 miles of the state's waters are "unclassified," meaning they aren't required to meet federal standards for uses such as fishing and swimming. The EPA also has been slow to require Missouri to fully implement the federal act, but recent legal action from an environmental coalition has forced the state and the EPA to address the issue.

The DNR now has a rule under review that would extend protection to about 85,000 more miles of streams statewide — at a significant price.

Under the rule, the Department of Natural Resources will require 1,342 treatment systems statewide to disinfect wastewater for bacteria such as E. coli before it enters a newly protected stream. Estimated costs for installing disinfection equipment and operating it for the first year are about $95 million, according to department figures.

Without major improvements and more costs, though, disinfection could be useless in hundreds of wastewater lagoons across the state.

It would fail to remove harmful bacteria that impair streams and cause human illnesses, including dysentery and hepatitis A. In that case, even streams that gained new protection wouldn't see an improvement in water quality.

No place better exemplifies the dilemma than Boone County, where major urban streams such as Flat Branch, which recently tested for seven times the safe limit for E. coli, remain unprotected.

The county has 94 treatment systems that would have to begin disinfecting wastewater under the new rule, a process that will cost a total of $5 million, according to Department of Natural Resources estimates.

Of those treatment systems, 71 are small wastewater lagoons with a flow of less than 50,000 gallons per day. By comparison, Columbia's plant has a design flow of 20 million gallons of wastewater per day. The plant discharges into wetlands at Eagle Bluffs and is not directly impacted by new stream protections.

The 71 small lagoons make up an older, less thorough treatment system. Their wastewater is too dirty for disinfection techniques such as chlorine or ultraviolet to be effective, engineers say.

That puts those wastewater permit holders in a bind: The law requires them to disinfect, often a costly and complex affair, but their current setup can't guarantee them compliance with the law, nor can it improve the water quality of streams on the receiving end.

Paying for cleaner streams

There are 37 publicly owned and 57 privately owned treatment systems in Boone County that need to be disinfected.

Paying for improvements to the publicly owned facilities will come down to sewer rate increases and low-interest loans from a Department of Natural Resources revolving fund, which has been set aside for projects that benefit the state's water quality.

The Boone County Regional Sewer District has already begun dealing with the cost of disinfection, after the state established in 2006 that about 22,000 miles of streams had to be safe for swimming.

To meet those requirements, the sewer district is centralizing its sewer service and closing several treatment plants that are unable to properly disinfect, Sewer District General Manager Tom Ratermann said.

The sewer district's consolidation project will raise typical sewer rates from $30 per customer when the project began in 2008 to about $50 in 2013.


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Sewer rates could rise in some Boone County communities because new water-quality standards will force them to pay for disinfection.

In Ashland, engineer Jeff Medows said disinfection will cost about $400,000 for the town of 3,700. Ashland has a newer type of lagoon system, for which ultraviolet disinfection can work, Medows said.

Centralia would also have to disinfect, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The department estimates disinfecting a mechanical treatment plant of Centralia's size will cost about $970,000.

Mike Forsee, the city's water foreman, said he hopes Centralia can prove its facility doesn't send enough water into local streams to warrant disinfection. The city sends most of its wastewater to farmers who use it as fertilizer.

Harrisburg and Sturgeon are other municipal systems that will be forced to disinfect, according to the department. Disinfecting a facility like Harrisburg's is estimated to cost about $32,000, while Sturgeon's could cost more than $100,000.

Cleaning up small streams also would require several privately owned wastewater systems, nearly all of them lagoons, to disinfect.

These 57 small, on-site sewage treatment systems in Boone County would be impacted by the new water-quality standards — operations such as restaurants, churches and mobile home parks that cannot access the state's low-interest loans and have few, if any, ratepayers to bear the costs.

"More headache than they want to deal with"

Cornell’s Friendly Acres already faces a deadline for disinfection.

The small cluster of homes south of Columbia off Route K sends its wastewater into a lagoon that discharges into an unnamed tributary of Little Bonne Femme Creek. That was acceptable under its state-issued permit, but no longer.

The lagoon serves about a dozen homes — half housing families with young children, the other half retirees. New water-quality standards are forcing them to disinfect the lagoon by March 2013.

The Department of Natural Resources estimates disinfection costs for a facility of Friendly Acres’ size at $10,000 for installation and $22,000 for yearly operations.

“It’s going to be very costly,” said Jim Cornell, a Friendly Acres resident and manager. “We’re undecided on what to do at the moment.”

Friendly Acres, along with a handful of other private permit holders in the county, already faces deadlines to disinfect its wastewater. If and when the pending rule takes effect, the 57 small, privately owned treatment systems will be forced to do the same by December 2013.

A small operation like Friendly Acres accounts for a minimal amount of wastewater: 3,700 gallons per day. The total maximum flow for all 94 county systems is close to 4.5 million gallons per day of bacteria-filled water.

Disinfecting wastewater is a lot to ask of a small-scale private permit owner, Ratermann said. Not only is disinfection costly, it's time-consuming. It requires chemical application and weekly checks.

"Restaurant owners, apartment owners, day care operators, churches, mobile home park operators — it's more headache than they want to deal with," he said.

Many of those people don't know that deadlines are looming. Before declining interviews, the owners of several impacted permits said they were unaware of the pending rule or what it would mean for them.

Those permit holders "did not know they were on a list of potentially affected facilities when it was compiled,” Department of Natural Resources spokesman Larry Archer said. “As is current practice, all of these facilities will be notified of the new requirement for disinfection at permit renewal.”

Disinfection deadlines often give facilities ample time to comply, but public comment for the rule closed Friday — the chance to provide input came and went before many of the people the rule would impact most even realized it.

Pick your poison

The main problem for Jim Cornell and the rest of the Friendly Acres residents is not an unexpected deadline, though. Nor is it the cost of disinfection. It's the fact that disinfection might not work.

Like many small operations, Friendly Acres relies on a typical wastewater lagoon: an algae-blanketed earthen pond full of bacteria that feast on solid waste.

The system is widely used and has its benefits as a relatively cheap, low-maintenance and energy-efficient way to handle wastewater. But it produces murky water that's full of small particles of solid waste.

Ratermann said he expects that disinfecting lagoon water will be problematic, and many agree.

Wastewater disinfection typically occurs through one of two applications: chlorine or ultraviolet radiation. Chlorine is a toxic chemical that attacks the harmful pathogen in bacteria such as E. coli. Ultraviolet, similarly, damages the pathogen to the point that it's neutralized.

Neither of these can happen unless the wastewater is clear enough. Lagoons, by their nature, are full of algae. They're also full of "suspended solids," small particles of solid waste — coffee grounds, for instance — that are not fully broken down.

These cloud the water and allow the bacteria to hide from ultraviolet light. Cloudy water also means chlorine will attack algae and waste particles instead of the targeted bacteria.

So, to kill the bacteria, more chlorine is needed. But chlorine is a toxic chemical — it's harmful to humans in large enough doses and dissolves into toxic compounds in the environment.

When Columbia’s water was contaminated in 2009, it came from a byproduct of chlorine. Wastewater permits put strict limits on residual amounts of chlorine, and removing it is yet another complex and costly process.

“If they turn the chlorine up, they won’t meet chlorine limits," Ratermann said. "If they turn the chlorine down, they won’t meet the pathogen limits."

He said wastewater typically can't be disinfected when total suspended solids in the lagoon are at about 70 or 80 milligrams per liter of water. A review of permits for lagoons in Boone County showed most had suspended solids limits at or above 70 milligrams per liter.

"I think the DNR is kind of kidding themselves if they think disinfection is going to work for these permits," Ratermann said.

A report from the department's Southeast Regional Office a few years ago indicates as much.

“Lagoons will pose a special challenge as it is both difficult and potentially very expensive to disinfect lagoon water with a high algal cell count with chlorine and virtually impossible with ultraviolet,” according to the report, which calculates disinfection costs for the Missouri Clean Water Commission.

Archer said the report was never intended to address specific issues, and chlorination is an effective method for disinfection as long as the lagoons are designed and operated correctly.

Wastewater lagoons don't always work to the ideal design, though.

"You have to get beyond what's theoretical and look at what's going to ensure compliance," said Medows, the wastewater engineer who works with several municipal systems, including Ashland's.

"If your solid discharge is too high, you're going to have trouble meeting it."

Although there are technologies available that can improve a lagoon and make disinfection work, they are expensive, said Enos Inniss, a civil and environmental engineering professor at MU who has studied wastewater treatment since the mid-1990s.

"The only thing that makes sense for disinfecting lagoons is getting the total suspended solids down," Inniss said. "By extension, the cost of disinfection is going to go up because you have to first improve the process. It's not as simple as 'now let me add chlorine.'"

Chlorine also needs contact time with bacteria to be effective. In many cases, there's simply not enough room for the needed upgrade, Ratermann said.

Opting for a new system often is cheaper than continuing to add improvements to old technology, Inniss said. Deciding what to do with a wastewater system is not a "right now" question — it's a five to 10 years down the road question, he said.

Even if a permit holder can improve a lagoon to the point of effective disinfection, that might not be the best long-term financial plan.

Out of options

For many older, smaller, private lagoons, the only way to ensure compliance is to leave the current setup behind and hook up to a public sewer.

When those private treatment systems were installed, they were far enough from public sewer lines that the state granted them permits for on-site treatment. At the time, it was the most cost-effective option.

Now, more than two-thirds of the county's privately held wastewater permits are in range of public sewer service, according to the Boone County Regional Sewer District.

Cornell’s Friendly Acres is among them. Hooking up to the county sewer is, theoretically, a more feasible option for Friendly Acres than many others; its current setup is only about 1,000 feet from a public sewer.

But the sewer district estimates the cost of connecting those 12 homes to the public sewer at about $282,000 — far more than the cost of disinfection. That includes the cost of installing a pump station, laying thousands of feet of pipe and closing down the lagoon.

That’s about $23,500 per home when split a dozen ways.

Some families in the development will need to take out second mortgages to pay for the improvements, Cornell said.

Those residents can accept a county-issued bond, but the Boone County Commission typically issues those for 20-year periods, and they cannot be paid off early.

“To force us to spend this kind of money in this economy is very impractical,” Cornell said. “If you were forced to put a second mortgage on your property, could you afford it or couldn't you?”

That cost is not an outlier. The sewer district estimates the price of connection at more than $100,000 for the Bonne Femme Mobile Home Park and nearly $400,000 for the Manchester Heights neighborhood, which both have private permits.

Soon, those communities could be joined by many others with few other options but to spend the money or fall out of compliance with the law.

Decades in the making

Since the Clean Water Act became law in 1972, Missouri has classified roughly 25,000 miles of rivers and streams. More than 180,000 miles of streams have been mapped in Missouri; most are headwater streams, or tributaries of larger water bodies.

Under the Clean Water Act, these waters should be protected for all uses, including swimming and fishing, but Missouri remains one of only seven states without blanket protection for its waters.

The Environmental Protection Agency sent the state a letter in 2000 declaring that its current scope of stream protecting didn’t fulfill the Clean Water Act. Then a decade passed with little change toward satisfying the federal law that aimed to be fully implemented in the mid-1980s.

“We missed that by just a bit,” Clean Water advocate Ken Midkiff quipped at a mid-July Clean Water Commission meeting where the impact of the new regulations was discussed at length.

Midkiff, chair of the Sierra Club Osage Group's conservation committee, claims the only reason the Department of Natural Resources maintained its current system for so long is because nobody forced a change.

The number of waters the state does classify came from decades-old studies by the Missouri Department of Conservation of lakes, rivers and streams where fishing and swimming were known to occur.

John Hoke, who has led the development for the Department of Natural Resources' rule in review, said the state originally focused on classifying larger rivers and streams that were routinely used.

“As the Clean Water Act evolved, we began to realize it was more than just those streams," he said.

The list was never updated to the extent it needed.

A lawsuit from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment forced the issue. Filed in 2010 and still active, the coalition is suing the EPA for not fully implementing the Clean Water Act in Missouri, namely for allowing so many streams to be unclassified.

The Department of Natural Resources was recently named a party in the suit. Midkiff said the Sierra Club had planned on suing over the same issue, but the coalition beat them to it.

“These headwater streams are not only rendered incapable of supporting aquatic life and become unsafe for human exposure, but they are also discharging massive amounts of pollution to the larger water bodies downstream that people use for swimming, fishing and drinking water,” said Lorin Crandall, the Clean Water Program Director for the coalition.

The rule in review doesn't extend to all streams in Missouri, though. It omits tens of thousands of miles. In Crandall's opinion, it doesn't come close to fulfilling the Clean Water Act.

“We regard this plan as a baby step toward compliance with the law,” he said, referring to the thousands of miles of streams in Missouri the state's new rule would not cover.

Debate persists over what level of protection Missouri's small, intermittent streams deserve.

Last year, Crandall and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, along with several other groups including the EPA, took part in a working group convened by the Department of Natural Resources to discuss the classification of those streams.

The group quickly dismissed the extent of the state’s pending rule as inadequate, Crandall said. The group found that the state's rule revision omits a number of streams where aquatic life exists, even though it grants protection to nearly five times the number of currently protected waters.

Increasing the scope of protected waters will greatly increase the costs for administering permits and water-quality assessments.

"The key is finding a balance," Hoke said. “We can put a rule out there and not implement it, and it doesn’t do any good.”

The DNR already runs that risk to some extent in trying to protect nearly five times the number of streams than before. The department currently spends about $3.3 million annually on water quality monitoring and assessment. Protecting 85,000 more miles of streams will raise those costs to $11 million annually, according to DNR estimates.

The Clean Water Act requires that the state monitor all of its waters once every two years, something it already cannot achieve.

“We already don’t get to all waters every two years,” Hoke said. “When you quadruple the number of waters to monitor, with a fixed sampling budget, you’re going to have to prioritize.”

When the newly classified streams are more closely monitored, there’s a good chance many of them will be added to the state’s impaired water list. Restoring the health of an impaired body of water can be a long and expensive process. Under the current number of classified waters, nearly 350 are on the impaired list.

“We’re going to find probably lots of streams that are impaired,” Hoke said. “We know that’s going to come.”

Despite the numerous setbacks, Crandall is confident that when it's all said and done, "the result of this lawsuit could be one of the greatest increases in water protection the state has seen."

Ahead of the rule

The greatest impact of the change in stream protection — for both environmental gain and economic cost — might be years away. Disinfection is the main thrust of the pending rule for stream protection, but in coming years the state will address wastewater limits for nutrients such as ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorous that can damage water quality.

If limits are established, the permit-holders of newly protected streams would have to remove those nutrients, as well. Ratermann said even some mechanical treatment plants will struggle to remove nutrients, another component of the sewer district's desire to eliminate nearly half of its existing subdivisions.

The same consolidation could be a necessity for much of the county — public and private facilities alike — as water-quality standards evolve to negate the viability of traditional wastewater lagoons.

“It’s an older technology. It’s appropriate for the existing rules, for the most part, but it’s right on the edge," MU's Inniss said of the wastewater lagoon. Ideally, permit owners should be trying to stay ahead of the rule rather than reacting to it, Inniss said.

The existing rules, however, are years behind what they should be in terms of the Clean Water Act. That means permits without disinfection requirements were already behind the federal rule at the time they were issued.

"The question is, are you in front of or behind the rule," Inniss said, "and lagoons are behind the rule."

When it comes to the Clean Water Act, so is the state of Missouri.

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John Johnson August 13, 2011 | 8:46 p.m.

A very well written article by A. Schick, I am impressed.

But this is just another power play by the county/state to screw people out of their hard earned money.

And here is the simple solution, what should have been done in the first place:

Put your house water waste drainage on an underground septic system (or even above ground). Should have been done at the beginning.

When faced with the state coming out and monitoring your water waste every week for an estimated $22,000 a year, just go to a septic system.

It is going to cost you to have somebody come out and bury the septic tank, then move your outflow pipe to it, but not that much. A one time cost, instead of $22,000 a year.

I know, I have a septic system. I love not having to pay the crooks in local government every month.

Then you have somebody come out and pump it out for a couple hundred bucks every 4 years, problem solved.

It is going to save you a lot of money in the long run, and even in the short run.

So sad that the county\state would pull this kind of 'crap' (if you'll pardon my pun).

Why can't people just find the simple solutions that make sense, instead of trying to make everything so difficult?

I would also recommend out in Friendly Acres, that you drop you own water well, put in a pump, and quit paying for county water if you are being charged for that. It will save you a lot of money.

You don't have to trust me, still, I type the truth. I don't pay their bills every month, and everybody in my family (especially me), is happy, healthy, and fine.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 13, 2011 | 10:22 p.m.

A septic tank will work for a couple years, until your leach field is dumping basically raw sewage on your downhill neighbors, thanks to Missouri clay. One of the neighbors in the subdivision I live in called DNR on her uphill neighbor about their septic tank leaking onto her property. DNR said she was correct, but oops, your system has failed as well. From what I heard (this occurred before I moved into the subdivision), several other systems were in a failed state as well. I recall an inspection done when I was purchasing my house revealed that my neighbors' system was leaking onto my property as well.

My house had a septic tank when I bought it, but most of my neighbors and I contracted with a private party to put in a sewer system that was then deeded to the county district. Yes, I now have to pay a monthly fee, but I don't have to worry about the sewage emptying out into the horse pasture behind my property. It wasn't cheap, but it was a cheaper option than having the county district build it for us.

(Report Comment)
John Johnson August 14, 2011 | 12:45 a.m.

Sarge Schultz, ya vul...Heil!

You are wrong. I've had a septic tank and a deep well pump for almost 30 years now, and they are fine. My family is fine, you can drink the water out of the ground. You don't need fluoride and chlorine in it.

There is maintaining required, but if you don't buy them from China or Taiwan, the septic tank and the deep well water pump last a good, long time. Plenty of time to save tons of money from the city\county\state robbery for providing water.

I will personally uphold these facts. And if you don't believe me...I'll show you. This is still the Show-Me State, right?

Way better than paying the county every month for water usage and waste management. And you become more self-sufficient.

All I know, is my pocketbook knows...I save a lot of money compared to my neighbors.

If I even lived in Columbia, I'd drop a deep well. To hell with paying the city for water, it is everywhere. With a well pump, you can use as much water as you want.

(Report Comment)
David Sautner August 14, 2011 | 1:32 a.m.

If the Missouri Coalition for the Environment succesfully sues the EPA for negligence they can use the money to give people the opportunity to either 1) install their own septic systems or 2) install wells. That would be preferable to raising the sewage rate from $30 to $50 and consequently forcing people the pay for the EPA's lack of adequate oversight.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 14, 2011 | 1:06 p.m.

Hey John Johnson, I've got some German ancestry in my blood. If you're going to use German in an attempt to be funny, learn how to spell it first. You know nothing! Nothing!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 14, 2011 | 1:09 p.m.

David, I highly doubt that the coalition will get much money from the EPA beyond maybe lawyer fees. What I imagine they are suing for is to make the EPA and DNR follow what they believe the law to be, as opposed to suing for damages.

(Report Comment)
Eric Niewoehner August 14, 2011 | 9:28 p.m.

Well done article.

1) I think everybody would love to see clean streams, beavers and otters.

2) But it is a clear illustration of an unfunded mandate. No state in the country has exhibited a stronger program for conservation than Missouri, yet this is coming from the federal government with no means of enforcing it except to force the state and its citizens to pay for it.

3) Reporter also pointed out that there is an expense to enforcement and data gathering -- quite costly.

No simple answers, but the one of forcing small communities into ridiculous expenditures actually has a precedence -- Harrisburg, PA. EPA came in, mandated a filtering system be put on their trash furnace, and simply proceeded to bankrupt the city. Despite how much I sympathize with conservation groups, bankrupting ordinary people and small communities harms the conservation movement.

Another article on the bigger picture may be useful -- what has been done and what can be more easily achieved. Better planning, appropriating state funds for highways and sewers based on reachable clean water standards, improving sewer district development, raising standards for home building in rural areas, improving land management on farms.

(Report Comment)

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