In hot water

Plan to put warm wastewater in Deer Creek lands in court

Just like you and me, wastewater-treatment plants need to use the facilities. We use a toilet, but the El Dorado Irrigation District’s (EID) treatment plant discharges into Deer Creek, which flows through El Dorado and Sacramento counties south to the Cosumnes River near Elk Grove. What residents in El Dorado County flush in their toilets and wash down their drains may end up at the Deer Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant near Cameron Park. The water goes through three rounds of vigorous treatment, including removing solids that float, settle or are dissolved. But it’s not what’s in the water that’s bugging defenders of Deer Creek.

Two environmental groups are suing the EID and the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board over a plan to let the treatment plant pump warm treated wastewater into Deer Creek—possibly endangering coldwater fisheries in the 35-mile-long waterway.

Treated water can get hot during storage and when moving through pumps and machines. Hot water added to the creek heats up the stream near the discharge point, which raises environmentalists’ concern for coldwater fish habitats. “High temperature is analogous to discharging pesticides or chemicals like arsenic or mercury,” said Carrie McNeil, Central Valley program director of the group Baykeeper. “It can harm the ecosystem and either kill or have sub-lethal effects on species.” Water that is too warm may kill coldwater fish, stunt growth, inhibit reproduction or stop migration.

Environmental-conservation groups sued the state and regional water boards in California Superior Court on June 14. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the Deltakeeper Chapter of Baykeeper claim the boards approved a temperature amendment that negates the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and other laws designed to protect water quality. They say that the amendment fails to protect fish species including rainbow trout, steelhead and chinook salmon.

The nonprofit organizations asked the court to discard the amendment and order a new one, which may force EID to build $2.9 million chillers to cool treated water before it enters the stream.

The “Basin Plan,” overseen by regional boards, is the basis for protecting water in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins. The plan dictates that the natural temperature of water should not be increased more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The new standard permits higher temperature increases in Deer Creek in some winter and spring months.

Less-restrictive standards in those months make life easier for EID, which has been discharging into the creek, at times in violation of the 5-degree rule. “El Dorado Irrigation District could not consistently comply with the temperature limitation,” said Ken Landau, assistant executive officer at the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. So, the district asked to change the rules.

“EID, that is, the citizens served by EID, were going to have to expend considerable money to build chillers to comply with the standard.” Developing and processing the amendment cost EID only $300,000.

“The trout and salmonid fisheries of Deer Creek are being sacrificed to save EID $2.9 million,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “The amendment is a flagrant violation of the Clean Water Act—adopted water-quality standards must ensure the protection of identified beneficial uses.” According to the CWA, beneficial uses include the protection and propagation of fish and wildlife.

The CWA also says that administrators should consider the use and value for public water supplies and industrial purposes when adopting new standards. “The No. 1 interest was creek protection, and the second was not to impose a standard which did not improve the environment and created unnecessary costs for compliance,” Landau said in approving the amendment. “It’s a waste of electricity, effort and money” to build chillers.

Landau said studies by fish biologists showed that “what [fish] should be there would not be impacted.” A board staff report cited data from 1993 to 2000, which indicated that “no resident, self-sustaining populations of coldwater fish currently occur in Deer Creek.” The report added that if conditions are favorable enough, a potential may exist for use of the creek by fall-run chinook salmon and potentially steelhead in winter and spring months, months that partially overlap those with new temperature maximums.

But McNeil argues that data supported by the U.S. Department of Fish and Game and information gathered by Deer Creek locals confirm the presence of coldwater fish. She said the population may not be great, but that is all the more reason to protect it. The money is “not that much spread over a long period of time,” she added. “You can’t put an amount on the amazing benefits of keeping healthy waterways for fish and wildlife and for drinking water taken from the Delta.

“Other cities, like Placerville, Lincoln and Roseville, are in the process of or have already put chillers in, which is being environmentally responsible. Why should EID get an exception?” McNeil added.

Landau said that in areas such as Placerville, “the streams they discharge into have definite populations of coldwater fish.”

Jennings believes the board report, largely funded by EID, is biased and excludes input from those who might disagree with its conclusion. Landau said, “EID did pay for much of the work, but it was reviewed and generated in concert with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Fish and Game, and the board kept close scrutiny on the report.” Having not reviewed the lawsuit, EID refused to comment.

Jennings asserted, “The regional board, under mounting political pressure from dischargers, is backsliding in its efforts to protect the environment. This U-turn in environmental protection has ominous implications for fisheries throughout the Central Valley.”