Degraded Lower Colorado River Needs Federal Help to Recover
TUCSON, Arizona, June 4, 2009 (ENS) - Protection of Lower Colorado River water quality needs comprehensive legislation and adequate funding for a major effort like programs underway in the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, local officials told a hearing held by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power in Tucson on May 27.

The Colorado River is the major water resource in the arid southwestern United States. It is the source of drinking water for 25 million people throughout southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico. The river provides irrigation water for almost two million acres, fish and wildlife habitat and water-based recreation for millions of people.

Calling for a comprehensive approach to surface water protection, Lake Havasu City Mayor Mark Nexsen testified on behalf of the 56,000 Havasu residents and the 42,000 people living in Bullhead City. He also spoke as chairman of the regional Colorado River Regional Sewer Coalition, which serves area tribes, cities and towns, including Tucson.

Nexsen called for comprehensive legislation and adequate funding to address all the threats to the Colorado River with a coordinated council of relevant agencies, "similar to clean up efforts in the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes Region."

"Tens of millions of dollars of federal, state, regional and local government money are being spent to protect endangered species through the Lower Colorado Multi-Species Conservation Program, yet virtually no federal money has been expended to help mitigate water quality issues," Nexsen said.

The largest water quality federal program, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, provides low cost loans to fund water quality protection projects for wastewater treatment, nonpoint source pollution control, and watershed and estuary management in place to assist communities with infrastructure.

Lake Havasu on the Colorado River is formed by the Parker Dam (Photo by Doc Searles)

But, Nexsen told the subcommittee, "it has been well documented that the funding for this program over the years has not been sufficient to meet our nation's clean water needs."

Threats to water quality on the Lower Colorado include a Pacific Gas & Electric compressor station site on the California side of the river at Topock that emits a plume of hexavalent chromium that is now only 60 feet from the river.

The threat of Uranium tailings from mines near Moab, Utah is of great concern, said Nexsen. The tailings pile is built in the center of an alluvial fan, which is vulnerable to possible failure during a large flood.

Pharmaceuticals in the Colorado River are a growing concern, the mayor said. Tests performed by Lake Havasu City have discovered detectable levels of pharmaceuticals in the river and in the local ground water.

The most recent threat to the Colorado River is the alien invasive quagga mussel, discovered there in early 2007. These mussels have become established in the Colorado River from Lake Mead downstream. Over 40,000 quagga mussels per square meter have been reported in Lake Havasu and Lake Mohave one year after their discovery.

Water agencies are now spending tens of millions of dollars annually to remove quagga mussels from intake pipes and other water distribution equipment, said Nexsen.

"The quagga mussel not only threatens the water supply for millions of Americans but also, along with the other aforementioned threats to the River, imperils the economic existence of cities such as Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City that depend on tourism from boaters that enjoy the River," he said.

Research indicates a relationship between the mussels' feeding habits and nutrient loading such as nitrates and phosphates from septic tanks.

Soaring sewer costs led Mayor Nexsen to tell the subcommittee, "The citizens of Lake Havasu City in a valiant effort to deal with nitrates are now, quite frankly, in an emergency situation."

With a large proportion of the population retired or on a fixed income and the average wage at $12 per hour, the mayor said,Placing the financial burden to protect the River alone by Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City residents is unacceptable."

The river cannot be protected by local governments alone, he said, citing a March 2007 wastewater improvements report from the federal Bureau of Reclamationthat documented the cost of remediation at roughly $2.1 billion through the year 2025.

Lorri Lee, regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation Lower Colorado Region, confirmed to the subcommittee that septic systems appear to be adversely impacting groundwater quality along the Colorado River.

To meet federal and state water discharge standards, she said, communities along the river are being required to construct costly municipal wastewater systems.

The total population of the 24 communities along the Colorado River is projected to increase from 290,000 to 480,000 by 2025 according to State of Arizona projections, said Lee.

"A total of over 1,400 miles of wastewater pipelines and 26 million gallons per day of wastewater treatment capacity may be needed," she said.

Alexis Strauss, Water Division director with the U.S. EPA Region 9, told the subcommittee that under Clean Water Act Section 319, the nonpoint source program, states receive EPA funding to develop watershed-based plans and support local projects to address nonpoint source pollution.

"A Watershed Plan for the Lower Colorado River is under development by the state of Arizona Department of Environmental Quality," Strauss said. "This plan, which we expect to be drafted within the next year, will identify the causes and sources of pollution to the lower Colorado, management measures to address pollution sources and the pollutant load reductions expected as a result."

Strauss said the 2010 Presidentís Budget requests $2.4 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, an increase of over $1.5 billion from 2009 levels. If passed by Congress, the 2010 budget will increase Arizonaís share of Clean Water SRF monies, making more low-cost financing available to municipalitiesí most critical wastewater needs.

An additional $26.4 million has come to Arizona under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act for State Revolving Fund programs, plus another $55.3 for the drinking water SRF program, Strauss said.

Lake Havasu City applied for $5 million for its Wastewater Sewer Expansion project, she said, "and we expect them to receive this funding later this year, partly as a grant and partly as a low interest loan."

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