MORE

Tale of the Crypto

The Salt River Project is mired in sludge, and, at the moment, so is Paul Cherrington, SRP's engineer in charge of water distribution.

He's pulled on rubber boots and stepped gingerly out onto the cracked, miles-long cake of sludge that had been mucked out of the Arizona Canal and piled on the canal-side path near 51st Avenue. At first, the top layers squish beneath his footsteps with the sponginess of brownies that aren't quite ready to come out of the oven. But with the next step, he's sucked under, and has to lean hard on a shovel to keep from sinking in over his boots.

Each winter, SRP drains the canals and dredges out more than 7,000 cubic yards of sludge at a cost of a quarter-million dollars or so.

The sludge is a by-product of the City of Phoenix's water treatment plants, a mixture of dirt and disease that has been coagulated with the help of aluminum sulfate, or alum. Unlike the practice at most of the country's water treatment facilities, in Phoenix the aluminum-tainted sludge is dumped right back into the water, where it floats downstream to the next water treatment plant in concentrated flows, or "slugs."

Since 1988, SRP has been trying to stop the dumping, but with little success, so SRP workers shovel it out and lay it along the canal, three to four feet deep, ten to 15 miles at a time.

Phoenix city ordinances will not allow SRP to truck it wet through the streets for fear that it will leave messy, muddy trails through the neighborhoods. Even if SRP could truck the wet gunk, no landfill would accept it because its free-flowing liquid could cause other city-dump dirtiness to leach into the soil. And if SRP found its own site for dumping the wet glop, it would probably need an aquifer-protection permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality to do so; water from the sludge could carry aluminum or microbiological freeloaders down into the water table.

And so the sludge sits and stinks on the canal banks for four to six months, the time it takes to dry enough to be accepted at a landfill.

"Every year we get complaints from residents because it smells," says Cherrington. "No matter where we put it."

Canal joggers, bikers and dog walkers hate it. It's hampered the city's plans to use the canalside as a recreation area, because one bank has to be kept free for the annual sludge dumps.

Aside from aluminum--a metal suspected to contribute to Alzheimer's disease--the sludge may contain fecal coliform, a feces-based bacterium; giardia, a parasite that causes dysentery; and a host of other contaminants. Neither SRP nor the City of Phoenix will admit to having done a microbiological analysis of the sludge, perhaps for fear of what might be in it, and the remediation that they might have to make.

Meanwhile, little boys play in the muck, which is easily accessible to anyone walking along the canals. Some local communities like to sprinkle the talcumlike dried sludge on their park department baseball-diamond infields. Former mayor Paul Johnson used a few truckloads to fill a wash in his backyard, though his wife complained it stank of fish.

As revolting as the sludge is on dry land, however, it may be more troubling in the water.

SRP and the cities of Tempe and Chandler worry that the contaminated outflows from Phoenix water treatment plants carry high levels of an intestinal parasite called cryptosporidium, a chlorine-resistant protozoan that causes serious diarrhea and flulike symptoms in healthy folks--and kills people who have AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or who have otherwise compromised immune systems.

"Our biggest concern now is the health issue," Cherrington says.
Cryptosporidium, or "crypto," as it is affectionately called, comes from livestock and wildlife in the watershed. Their contaminated stool washes into the Salt and Verde rivers and then on into the SRP canals that provide drinking water for much of the Valley.

Officials at Valley water treatment plants claim that they successfully filter out the cryptosporidium.

"That's garbage," says Dr. Ken Fisher, a Phoenix physician who treats AIDS patients, "unless the City of Phoenix is using a very sophisticated high technology, only a specific microfilter that will filter it out. And you'd have to use chlorine in levels higher than you'd use in your swimming pool to kill it."

Fisher recommends that his patients boil their water.
Only four cases of cryptosporidiosis, as crypto infection is called, were reported from Maricopa County to the Arizona Department of Health Services in 1994, the first year that such statistics were kept by DHS. That rose to 17 in 1995. But Dr. Fisher claims that in his clinic alone, there are more than 30 AIDS patients afflicted with cryptosporidiosis.  

Logic says that at least some of those crypto sufferers contracted the disease from tap water.

Science does not yet know just how much crypto it takes to make you sick. Nor does anyone understand how it travels. In fact, there is no good way to measure it, in raw or treated water.

But because sludge is the end product of the filtering process, that is where the cryptosporidium most likely ends up, this time in concentrates that downstream water plants don't want to deal with.

And so, as the crypto breeds, a battle brews.
"Virtually every other discharger, any other water treatment plant in the country, does some kind of [solids] removal," says Catherine Kuhlman, chief of the permits andcompliance branch of the Environmental Protection Agency. "That is the standard practice. So I think it's reasonable for Phoenix to expect that they're going to haveto do some kind of removal."

But the City of Phoenix does not want to shell out $60 million to $80 million to build new facilities to keep the sludge out of the SRP canals.

So SRP upped the ante by raising the question of cryptosporidium. And the cities of Tempe and Chandler, whose water treatment plants lie downstream from Phoenix, have lined up alongside SRP to protest. They argue that, as long as there is a health risk, the City of Phoenix should act responsibly to eliminate it.

The City of Phoenix recently completed a study of cryptosporidium levels in the SRP canals that it claims proves that the dumping does not increase crypto levels.

Tempe water officials have characterized that study as nothing more than "a snapshot." SRP officials have gone further to say that the study, as flawed as it is, still shows increased crypto levels downstream from Phoenix water treatment plants.

While Tempe and Chandler already dispose of the sludge from their water treatment plants, in Phoenix, cost-benefit thinking prevails.

Health risks or no, within the next year, federal regulators will likely tell Phoenix to take care of its own sludge--unless Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza can find relief from any potential EPA directives.

He's hoping Congress helps him preserve the bottom line in the dirt fight.

In their argument against sludge removal, Phoenix officials fall back on the fact that cryptosporidium appears naturally in most surface waters.

"It's been there for eons," says Bing Brown, a Phoenix water department spokesman. "In the levels we're talking about, with or without that sludge, it is in very low quantity."

And since there have been no major outbreaks in Phoenix so far, Brown reasons, it's unlikely there will be problems in the future.

He may be right; he may be wrong.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 940,000 people are sickened each year by waterborne illnesses in tap water, and 900 die.

And in 1993, 400,000 people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came down with cryptosporidiosis, and 100 died.

The Milwaukee outbreak was blamed on human error in a water treatment plant. In 1994, 35 persons died from cryptosporidiosis in Las Vegas, and there have been outbreaks as well in Georgia and Washington state.

There is no treatment for cryptosporidiosis; generally, healthy people can shake the diarrhea in a couple of unpleasant weeks. But recent organ-transplant recipients, persons going through chemotherapy for cancer, and AIDS patients can't recover from it.

"They'll have 15 to 20 watery bowel movements a day," says Fisher. It is diarrhea that can be slowed down only by heavy-duty medicines, in some cases, opium. And the diarrhea leads to extreme dehydration and electrolyte loss. In Milwaukee, the disease struck sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis almost as viciously as it struck bone-marrow-transplant recipients and AIDS patients. Those children and adults with immune-system deficits who didn't die quickly lingered for months, unable to work or even eat. Some victims who had been healthy before contracting crypto were left with rare blood disorders and infected spleens that had to be removed.

Last March, Phoenix water department head Mike Gritzuk issued a press release saying "We strongly support AWWA's [American Water Works Association] and EPA's national effort to protect consumers from cryptosporidium."

According to guidelines issued by the American Water Works Association, the best crypto-prevention program keeps the parasite from getting into the water supply in the first place. The association was focused on moving it out of watersheds used for drinking supplies; SRP has argued that dumping crypto-loaded sludge into the water violates that guideline.

Back in his SRP office, Paul Cherrington sets two tall jars of water on a conference table to use as visual aids.  

"Here's a sample taken upstream of Val Vista," he says, referring to a water treatment plant in the East Valley co-owned by the cities of Phoenix and Mesa. As he shakes the jar, tiny particles of dust and dirt swirl in the otherwise clear liquid.

He lifts the other jar.
"This is a sample taken immediately downstream," he says. It's as brown and murky as a stool sample from the dysentery ward.

When water flows out of the Salt River Project canals and into any Valley water treatment plant, it is first doused with pure carbon to absorb the musky taste and odor of river water. Then it is mixed with alum, which binds to solids suspended in the water and carries them to the bottom. The sediment that settles to the bottom of the treatment plant is the sludge. And since cryptosporidium generally is carried in suspended solids, much of it should be removed from the water at that point.

After the coagulation process, the plant adds chlorine to the water, which kills giardia, fecal coliform and other parasites and bacteria. However, chlorine does not kill cryptosporidium because it is encased in an egglike cyst, or oocyst, that keeps the chlorine out.

Then the water is filtered through charcoal and sand and stones, which remove most of the remaining impurities.

And although crypto has never been detected in treated Phoenix or Tempe water (it was detected once in Mesa), that is no guarantee that it isn't there. The only completely safe waters are those that have been treated with ozone, or filtered through a process known as reverse osmosis, or boiled.

Water treatment experts agree that most of the cryptosporidium oocysts are removed by the coagulation and filtration processes in water treatment plants and end up in the sludge or the water that is used to backwash the filters.

The water treatment plants in Tempe and Chandler run those wastes through "dewatering" facilities that dry the sludge enough that it can be trucked directly to a landfill.

But the cities of Phoenix, Mesa and Glendale dump the sludge and backwash back into the SRP canals. The Phoenix-Mesa coowned Val Vista plant has sludge-drying equipment, but it doesn't run because the Phoenix City Council will not budget money for its operation. (Phoenix, incidentally, is not allowed to dump sludge at its water treatment plant on the federally funded Central Arizona Project canal.)

"The purpose of their water treatment plant is to filter that out," says Cherrington, still swirling his water samples. "And what they filter out is the sludge. So the very purpose of the plant is to concentrate what cryptosporidium is in there. And then they take it and dump it back in and say that the cryptosporidium content is less."

Between September and November of 1995, the City of Phoenix ran two studies of SRP canal water. One study measured the levels of crypto oocysts upstream and downstream of the various treatment plants; theother looked at how the sludge and backwash discharges affected the turbidity, or cloudiness, of the water. Since crypto attaches itself to solids in the water, increased turbidity could mean a higher likelihood of finding crypto.

Tempe officials didn't need a study to tell them that Phoenix discharges were reaching their plants. They could see it.

In an August letter to the City of Phoenix, W. Thomas Gallier, deputy public works director for Tempe, wrote, "The issue for us isn't whether sludge reaches our plant; it is whether there is an increased risk to Tempe's drinking water supply due to Phoenix's discharge of concentrated cryptosporidium oocysts in their alum sludge.... It is agreed that there is cryptosporidium in the Val Vista alum sludge. Every day that sludge is discharged into the SRP Canal system and subsequently to the South Tempe Water Treatment Plant, we are exposing ourself to potential cryptosporidium problems."

In fact, the Phoenix study showed that turbidity increased at the downstream plants by 100 percent to 350 percent after slug discharges upstream. So Phoenix experimented with different release scenarios and found that, if the sludge was discharged continuously, it did not significantly raise the turbidity, though it still increased the amount of aluminum--and, one supposes, everything attached to it--floating down the canals.

The Phoenix study also found crypto.
Going into the Phoenix Squaw Peak water treatment plant on the Arizona Canal near 24th Street, the researchers measured as many as 29 oocysts per 100 liters of water; downstream at the Phoenix Deer Valley plant, just west of I17, they found readings as high as 110 oocysts per 100 liters.

And although six of seven "events" showed increased crypto levels downstream, they didn't show any consistent increases. In one event, the crypto count dropped precipitously. When the numbers were crunched through standard statistical analysis, they came out as colorless as tap water.  

"There is no statistical difference between the upstream locations and the downstream locations," says Bob Hollander of the Phoenix Water Services Department.

The EPA approved the findings, but Phoenix's municipal neighbors are still shaking their heads over the unsophisticated results of the crypto study.

"It's just a snapshot," says Barb Olivieri of the Tempe Water and Wastewater Services Department. "My opinion is that it's just not a complete test, not enough work done."

SRP officials are seething.
"You need to have an extended sampling period of one or two years to do a truly defensible risk assessment of crypto exposures to downstream users," says Kevin Wanttaja, an SRP engineer.

And, Wanttaja and Cherrington point out, crypto poses the greatest problems during the spring as snow melt washes through the grazing lands upstream and the water is at its highest turbidity levels. Phoenix tested during the dry months of September, October and November, when the waters weren't running.

SRP also questioned why Phoenix sampled backwash waters and sludge in the canal, but never actually sampled the sludge in the water treatment plant itself. In the Phoenix data, there are occasions when crypto was detected going into the plant, but it doesn't show up later either in the backwash or the sludge.

In a letter to New Times, SRP officials wrote, "If the [City of Phoenix] sampling program did not detect higher concentrations of oocysts in the canal from the sludge discharge, then the method of sampling should be closely examined because the oocysts don't evaporate or magically disappear."

At the very best, it is nearly impossible to detect crypto in the first place, and then, according to Erik Olson at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., it is more common to find dead or empty oocysts than live, viable crypto protozoa.

"Generally, even the best labs in the country will find maybe 10 percent," says Olson. "So if you find one, you can assume there are nine others. And the second thing to point out is that in Las Vegas, they had a major outbreak of the disease linked by the CDC to their water supply, and they've never found crypto in their water supply. It's a pretty hard organism to detect."

Besides being difficult to detect, crypto is not evenly dispersed through the water as dissolved contaminants usually are. It does not dilute--consider that Milwaukee's plague floated out of the vastness of Lake Michigan. Crypto travels in unpredictable waves, and one could sample the water an hour before or an hour after it passes by and not detect it.

In March 1995, for example, the crypto count spiked at a San Francisco testing site, going from one oocyst per 1,000 gallons of raw water to 324 in just 24 hours. A day later, it dropped back to low levels as suddenly as it had spiked.

What worries local water department officials is just such a spike.
"We think that an argument can be made that a slug discharge is quite different from the way one might normally receive cryptosporidium," says George Selvia, public works director for Chandler. "If you get one big slug, it concentrates the cryptosporidium and increases the likelihood of it being problematic for us. We just don't want to see our risk increased as a consequence of any upstream discharges."

The risks just aren't known.
Before the results of the Phoenix study were revealed, the EPA's Catherine Kuhlman, who is in charge of issuing permits to the Phoenix water plants, told New Times, "If they say there's a crypto problem, there's a problem. But if they say there's no problem, we may still have a problem."

Rightly or wrongly, Phoenix and Mesa don't think they should make a decision until the problems are proved.

"We're just now getting to the point where we can detect crypto," says Bill Haney, assistant public utilities manager for Mesa. "Until we get to a point where we know the true health risks, it's difficult for us to take a position."

Phoenix, on the other hand, has taken the position that crypto is not going to be a problem. The Phoenix Water Services Department is one of the most capable and sophisticated departments in the country. If it had wanted to do a thorough study of cryptosporidium, more samples would have been taken. Tests would have been run during the wet season, when crypto poses greater threats. The sludge would have been analyzed right in the plant, instead of downstream.

And the results might not have been what the City of Phoenix was looking for.  

Until the EPA says otherwise, it's cash flow that regulates the sludge flow.
If the federal government requires the City of Phoenix to install sludge-drying facilities ateach of its water plants, the city would pay atleast $66 million just to build them, and $5.7million more per year to operate them--substantially more than the estimated $250,000 that SRP spends each year to dredge the sludge out of its canals.

SRP began arguing with the City of Phoenix about sludge discharges as early as 1988. SRP told Phoenix that it would not allow any additional sludge discharge as a result of expansion; if it wanted to expand its water treatment plants, the city would have to take care of the extra sludge itself. So Phoenix dutifully promised, in 1990, to build a solids-handling facility at the Val Vista plant it shared with the City of Mesa. Construction was to be completed by 1993.

Phoenix finished its Val Vista dewatering equipment, but never ran it regularly.

"What we thought was an agreement to eliminate sludge became, 'Well, maybe there's a way of getting out of this,'" says Paul Cherrington.

The EPA had no idea that Phoenix was discharging solids into its water supply until the late 1980s, when an anonymous citizen complained to the agency. EPA officials then insisted that Phoenix apply for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits in order to comply with theClean Water Act.

In March 1992, inspired by then-president Bush's State of the Union address in which he called for a moratorium on costly and unnecessary federal regulations, former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson wrote to Bush to ask if the SRP "irrigation" canals could be exempted from designation as "waters of the United States" and consequently exempted from building solids-removal facilities. He didn't get the exemption, and the city still hasn't come all the way through the EPA process.

Last year, the Phoenix City Council pulled the plug on the water department's budget so that the dewatering plant never ran.

"We have put money in the budget for 100percent operation for next year," says water department spokesman Bing Brown, but he makes no promises that the money will stay there. "Whether that will be approved or not by city council is yet to be determined," he says.

Even the City of Mesa, which is the minority shareholder in the Val Vista plant, would like to see the plant operating.

"We have the money invested in the dewatering facilities," says Bill Haney in the Mesa public utilities department. "We think they ought to run."

The City of Tempe and SRP complained to the EPA. And now, after Phoenix put off the capital improvements for years, the water bill may come due for the city.

The standard amount of sludge removal that the EPA will likely require falls somewhere between 80 percent and 85 percent. Crypto or no crypto, Kuhlman is adamant that Phoenix be held to that standard.

Phoenix has other plans.

Last fall, Mayor Skip Rimsza approached Republican Congressman John Shadegg to support a proposed amendment to the Clean Water Act of 1980.

The amendment was presented by a California congressman and drafted by WESTCAS, the Western Coalition of Arid States, to which SRP belongs. And, in fact, SRP executive Kevin Wanttaja participated in the writing of the proposed bill.

The Clean Water Act requires that all "waters of the United States" be maintained as swimmable and fishable. But since the irrigation and drinking-water canals in Arizona and elsewhere in the West were never intended to be fisheries or swimming holes, the WESTCAS amendment wanted those water conveyances held to lesser standards to be set by state governments.

To SRP's chagrin, Mayor Rimsza interpreted that wording as meaning that the State of Arizona would be able to set the water-quality standards for the canals--and, perhaps, allow continued sludge dumping, saving the city $66 million that Rimsza sees as providing dubious environmental benefit.

"I just think that, getting it closer to the local level of government, there'd be a better chance of working out something amicable," Rimsza told New Times. "And the reason is, I'd like to spend that $66 million in an area that would give the citizens of this community a significant environmental improvement. And the professionals are saying, 'Mayor, we're probably better off, assuming we're going to spend $66 million, putting it elsewhere than in solids removal.'"

Rimsza would rather put it to work on riparian projects, including canal beautification.

"If I could save some money on this project and then use that money to make the canals an attractive, environmentally pleasant place for this community, I'd do it."  

Of course, one of the main obstacles to making the canals more pleasant is the sludge piled along the banks for half of the year.

Shadegg declined Rimsza's overtures. Both SRP and the EPA say that Rimsza is mistaken in his interpretation of the WESTCAS bill. Catherine Kuhlman even called the water department and asked officials to convey that message to Mayor Rimsza in no uncertain terms. The proposed bill has nothing to do with sludge, they say, and any standards that the state sets have to be approved by the EPA anyway.

Which may not be saying much.
Arizona's water-quality standards are already so lax that the EPA has been ordered to rewrite them.

And drinking-water standards are under attack in Congress, with a torrent of legislation floated to weaken them.

The EPA, meanwhile, has been foundering in the government shutdown. The agency had intended to issue cryptosporidium guidelines early this year, but was set back by the federal furlough.

"We know that cryptosporidium is most likely to occur during spring thaws and rains," EPA administrator Carol Browner told the newsletter Inside EPA in December. "We're losing weeks now in terms of finalizing a rule that allows the data collection to take place so we can set standards and issue guidance. When we come back we'll have to evaluate what four weeks means in terms of that rule--can we be ready to go this spring? And we may not be."

Congressional Republicans have already stated that one way to deal with federal agencies they dislike is to cut their appropriations. They immensely dislike the EPA.

Catherine Kuhlman lamented to New Times that, for budgetary reasons, she has not been able to put her people out in the field yet this year to check on compliance. Still, she hopes to hold Phoenix to some final decision on sludge removal by the end of this year or by early 1997.

Given the sludgelike flow of budget talks in Washington, that may be wishful thinking. And the delay could work in Phoenix's fiscal favor. In fact, almost anything could happen with the EPA and drinking-water regulation.

As Skip Rimsza says with a faint tone of Sagebrush Rebellion in his voice, "We don't even know if they'll be the regulatory authority by then.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >