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Price of Water 

How Spokane Riverkeeper puts legal pressure on small communities

click to enlarge Rockford officials lowered the water level in one treatment lagoon in November while trying to find a leak in the liner material. - DEPARTMENT OF ECOLOGY
  • Department of Ecology
  • Rockford officials lowered the water level in one treatment lagoon in November while trying to find a leak in the liner material.

Follow the Spokane River upstream to People's Park, hang a right onto Latah Creek, continuing south about 30 miles to the fork at Rock Creek, then run another 20 or so miles to the town of Rockford, a hamlet of about 470 residents just west of the Idaho line. In recent years, the small town's sewage treatment system has racked up dozens of water discharge violations as fecal coliform, ammonia and other pollutants leak downstream.

Rockford Mayor Steve Meyer says local officials value clean water, but their small budget makes maintenance of the aging wastewater treatment facilities difficult, as monitoring equipment has failed and leaks have opened in the liners of water treatment lagoons.

"We've been trying to get our wastewater treatment plant rebuilt," he says. "It's not like we've been sitting here on our hands."

Many rural communities struggle with outdated or defective water treatment operations that no longer meet state environmental standards. With upgrades costing millions of dollars, towns may spend years deferring repairs or trying to secure grant funding — all while pollutants continue to flow into waterways.

Spokane Riverkeeper, a water quality advocacy program at the Center for Justice, has pushed to move small towns toward better water treatment practices. CFJ Director Rick Eichstaedt says the program offers new assistance and accountability, but may also take legal action if necessary.

Inspection records indicate Rockford's treatment system has numerous problems, including burnt-out UV disinfection lights, nonfunctioning water aerators and broken flow meters.

In January, Spokane Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against the Town of Rockford, alleging at least 77 violations of the federal Clean Water Act dating back to 2007. Eichstaedt emphasizes they first sent letters offering help and requesting meetings with city leaders before resorting to a lawsuit.

"Spokane Riverkeeper recognizes Rockford is a small town with limited means," one letter states. "Spokane Riverkeeper would like to help form a plan to protect the local economy and ecology while assuring the Rockford treatment plant meets its obligations under the [Clean Water Act]."

Both sides agreed to a settlement less than a week later, with a proposed consent decree outlining staged upgrades to water systems and increased water quality monitoring over the next four years. It also awards $7,000 in legal fees to the Riverkeeper. Federal officials have reviewed the proposal and a judge is scheduled to approve it May 5.

Meyer, a former city councilman elected mayor in November, says the town already had been working with the Department of Ecology on fixing treatment systems. He says Riverkeeper only forced expensive and unnecessary legal complications.

"The Clean Water Act is not a bad thing," Meyer says. "[But] they're just causing us more trouble and more money. ... It seems like they're strong-arming us in a lot of ways."

Meyer argues that the $7,000 fee (which Eichstaedt describes as a significant discount) and other legal costs would be better spent on new equipment. While DOE grants and loans will cover some of the $3 million in proposed upgrades, Meyer says about 50 percent will come from increased sewer charges.

Riverkeeper advocates have contacted other nearby towns with similar concerns. The mayors of Tekoa and Fairfield both say they quickly responded to warning letters and offered up their ongoing plans for implementing water treatment upgrades.

"We took 'em seriously," Tekoa Mayor John Jaeger says, adding, "Maybe Rockford didn't."♦

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