Communities like Fairfield could be faced with millions of dollars in wastewater treatment plant upgrades if the state imposes a low enough limit on phosphorus in the water, as it has in one part of the state.
But if a limit is set and it’s higher, it could cost the city as little as $65,000 per year.
“There are a lot of things that are really up in the air right now,” said Jason Hunold, Fairfield Wastewater Treatment superintendent. “We’re just kind of waiting on Ohio (Environmental Protection Agency) to make a decision one way or another.”
Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer the Ohio EPA “does not have any plans to institute a phosphorus limit at this time.”
“I don’t know if that decision will be made in the future, but there are no plans to do that,” she said.
But Fairfield Public Utilities Director Adam Sackenheim is concerned a limit will eventually be set because Ohio lawmakers already set one for the Western Lake Erie Basin, which has toxic levels of algal blooms. Water runoff into Ohio’s lakes, streams and rivers contain phosphorus and other nutrients, which are used in farming. Ohio has spent billions of dollars to fix the state’s water quality issues.
There is also a national trend of establishing low limits, he said.
“Everybody on the Mississippi” has a sub-1 milligram of phosphorus per liter limit of output, and farming states like Iowa and Wisconsin have “super-low phosphorus limits,” Sackenheim said.
Fairfield is one of four local governments that operate a wastewater treatment plant. Hamilton and Middletown operate plants, and the Butler County Water and Sewer Department services most of the county.
Algal blooms in Ohio’s lakes and rivers have turned many waterways to a thick green color. They have killed fish and caused some waters, such as Grand Lake St. Mary’s 100 miles north of Butler County, to be toxic. Ohio lawmakers determined that wastewater treatment plants around the Western Lake Erie Basin could discharge no more than 1 milligram of phosphorus per liter of output.
There is no phosphorus level discharge limit in Ohio outside of the Western Lake Erie Basin. But if the Ohio EPA or lawmakers set one, many officials hope it is not too far below 1 milligram of phosphorus per liter, Sackenheim and Hunold said.
They said Fairfield could achieve that level through chemical treatment, which would cost the city between $65,000 and $70,000 per year.
“But if we get lower than that, it’s going to require some major investments here at the plant,” Sackenheim said.
The lower the phosphorus output limit, Sackenheim said, the higher the cost for the city. Anything below a 0.25 milligram of phosphorus per liter would require Fairfield to invest in a plant expansion of up to $10 million, Sackenheim said. Chemical treatments cannot lower phosphorus levels too far below 1 milligram of phosphorus per liter, he said.
But no matter how low wastewater treatment plants in the region go, Sackenheim said there would be no benefit. He said a few regional treatment plants along the Great Miami River conducted some “model runs” of zero phosphorus discharge, with a 25 percent reduction of runoff from farm fields and “it still didn’t have any impacts on water quality.”
Sackenheim said wastewater treatment facilities are stuck in a difficult position if the Ohio EPA or lawmakers set a phosphorus limit low enough to require physical plant expansions. He said about 20 percent of the phosphorus in the Great Miami River comes from wastewater treatment plants.
“The municipal wastewater community is getting squeezed in terms of (potential) new limits and being required to upgrade, but it’s diminishing returns,” he said.
There are no algal blooms along the Great Miami River, but they have been on the Ohio River. The Great Miami River is a tributary to the Ohio River. In 2015, the blooms forced two events, the Great Ohio River Swim and River Sweep, to be postponed.
Ohio Farm Bureau spokesman Ty Higgins said farmers “take the majority of the blame” when it comes to phosphorus runoff into waterways, but “there are other things out there that are causing the issue.”
According to the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie are caused by runoff pollution.
“This type of pollution occurs when rainfall washes fertilizer and manure spread on large farm fields into streams that flow into Lake Erie,” according to the Alliance. “This fuels a bumper crop of algae each year that can make water toxic to fish, wildlife and people.”
Higgins said there had been restrictions placed on farmers in recent years, including state-mandated fertilizer application training for farms more than 50 acres.
“Fertilizer costs money, so you’re not going to put more than what you need for your crop to grow and thrive,” he said. “There’s not just a whole bunch of fertilizer just being thrown out. It all depends on a farmer’s bottom line and his or her economics.”
Higgins said farmers do use buffer strips to catch some of the nutrient runoff before it reaches swales and other basins that flow into lakes, streams and rivers.
“We’re now seeing two-stage ditches that does an even better job of phosphorus being filtered out,” he said. “That’s part of the research being done by farmers all over Ohio of what works best.”
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