Longform

Tale of the Crypto

Page 5 of 6

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."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Kiefer