BREMERTON — Sewer bills could double by the end of the decade under a state plan that will require billions of dollars to construct new systems at wastewater treatment plants that discharge into Puget Sound.
Officials at the state’s Department of Ecology say it’s time to require the plants, including those on the Kitsap Peninsula, to remove nitrogen that comes from urine. They believe the nitrogen could lead to “dead zones” of little to no dissolved oxygen in the water, which is harmful to sea life.
“Puget Sound communities rely on a healthy ecosystem,” Vince McGowan, the department’s water quality program manager, said in a blog last year. “We need strong salmon runs and thriving orca pods. Without this (program), we’ll be on a fast track to dead zones.”
But some experts at the University of Washington say the new requirements will produce little environmental benefit. They believe there are better ways to spend money to help the health of Puget Sound.
“The idea that the Salish Sea is a heartbeat away from having a dead zone is just nonsense,” according to Joel Baker, an environmental engineer who is the director of the University of Washington’s Puget Sound Institute. “What I would hope is that people can come together on this and agree to slow down. I think the solution is out there, but we haven’t done the technical work necessary to reach it.”
For its part, the city of Bremerton and several treatment plant operators around the sound have sided with Baker in hoping for more time. The Bremerton City Council voted unanimously at the end of December to file an appeal of the requirements to the state’s pollution control hearings board, joining other jurisdictions including King and Pierce counties and the cities of Tacoma, Everett and Edmonds.
“We anticipate that rate increases of this magnitude may be considered unaffordable to large portions of the residents and businesses in Bremerton,” wrote James A. Tupper Jr., a Seattle-based attorney representing the city in its appeal to stop or slow the new requirements.
Bremerton’s buildout would require 10% increases of its ratepayers’ sewer bills starting in 2023, topping out at 108% of their original amount in 2031, according to a city analysis that found the plant would need around $200 million in new construction costs. Other cities, including Seattle, are reporting a doubling of costs for ratepayers as well.
Acknowledging those costs in Bremerton, Kitsap County, and elsewhere, the Department of Ecology is planning an “environmental justice” component to “identify low income and overburdened communities within sewer service areas.” Grants, as well as money from the federal infrastructure bill signed by President Biden in November, could help communities cover the costs.
“We know this is going to be really expensive over the long run,” said Eleanor Ott, a senior environmental engineer for the Department of Ecology.
But proponents like Ott argue the costs are worth it and that the state has known for decades that dissolved oxygen levels fall below government standards in certain waterways of the Sound at times during the year. They say with climate change, and a rapidly growing region of now more than 4.2 million people, the problem of nitrogen will only get worse and affect marine life.
“Around the world, nitrogen in estuaries is a huge problem,” said Nina Bell, a non-practicing lawyer and executive director of Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates, which has sued the Department of Ecology for failing to implement nitrogen restrictions. “Why is Puget Sound in the mode of, ‘let’s study it to death and never do anything?'”
Ecology’s first new general nutrient permit requirements took effect in January. For the first five years, the plants are expected to find their own ways of minimizing nitrogen discharge while planning for longer-term capital improvements.
“We know they weren’t built for this,” Ott said of nutrient removal. “We’re saying, ‘Tell us how you’re going to change to drive that nitrogen load down. They have the flexibility to try things.”
When does nitrogen become a problem?
As northern shoveler ducks frolic in the round sewer digester ponds at Bremerton’s wastewater treatment plant on a chilly January afternoon, Bremerton Public Works’ Managing Engineer Ned Lever points to an area of grass and concrete towers not far from Highway 3. It is there, a space three football fields or so in size, where the city may soon have to invest roughly $200 million to capture nitrogen. One option is to use a “biofilm” process that relies on kenaf, a plant native to sub-Saharan Africa, to help filter it out.
The city’s 1984-built wastewater treatment plant treats and discharges millions of gallons of sewage each day — more than 7 million in winter and around 3 million in summer — but that amount can wildly fluctuate when heavy rains fall or a Navy aircraft carrier comes and goes. Even in storms, when it can reach 20 million gallons in a day, the plant disinfects wastewater and uses microbes to break it down, outperforming current requirements for discharge into Sinclair Inlet, according to plant manager Eric Burris.
But around 30 to 60 milligrams per liter of inorganic nitrogen escape into the Sound each day — greater than the eventual 3-milligram cap the Department of Ecology is asking for under its new permit.
Humans urinate about 7 pounds of nitrogen — one of the most abundant elements in the universe — each year, according to the EPA. The state’s Department of Ecology wants to do with nitrogen what, in some ways, our kidneys do within our own bodies: filter it out.
In total, around 38 tons of dissolved inorganic nitrogen flow from 87 different treatment plants into Puget Sound each day, according to the Puget Sound Institute. Of that, two-thirds comes from the four largest dischargers: two in King County, another in Tacoma, and one in Everett.
Nitrogen comes from a number of sources: some human-caused, such as fertilizers and effluent, and some natural, including decomposing plants and dead salmon.
Too much nitrogen in the water leads to excessive growth of algae and aquatic plants, which acts “like fertilizer,” and when such algae dies and decays, it gobbles up oxygen marine life needs to survive, the Department of Ecology says. In some areas of the Salish Sea, the water circulates well, but in shallower waterways, the water’s low level of dissolved oxygen can disturb the sound’s intricate food web, Ecology argues.
The agency, which has used a long-developed system of computer modeling, notes waterways — including Sinclair Inlet and Dyes Inlet — are “impaired,” and fall below state standards during the year. Ecology points to nitrogen cleanup efforts in other estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay, on the East Coast.
“We don’t have to degrade to the point of Chesapeake Bay to protect water quality,” Ott said. “The time is now if we are going to get in front of it.”
But Baker and other professors at the University of Washington say Chesapeake is not a good comparison. The glaciers that carved Puget Sound more than 10,000 years ago cut deep, averaging more than 200 feet down, as opposed to the Chesapeake, which averages just 20 feet or so and circulates less effectively.
“It’s like saying a Lamborghini and a Toyota Camry are both cars,” said Gordon W. Holtgrieve, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, who believes nitrogen removal will offer little to no benefit.
Puget Sound is “hypoxic” — it lacks oxygen — in less than 1% of its total volume, Holtgrieve says, and of that amount, 15% is a result of nitrogen coming from Puget Sound’s wastewater treatment plants.
“Put another way, if we turned off all the wastewater plants, we should expect hypoxia to improve in no more than 0.15% of Puget Sound and for only a few months during late summer and early fall,” he said.
But proponents say averaging all its waters together isn’t a fair analysis. Mindy Roberts, the Puget Sound program director for the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, says Puget Sound’s interconnectedness can send nitrogen from any treatment plant all across its waters and ultimately cause concentrations of low dissolved oxygen levels.
“We need to take care of this now,” said Roberts, who used to work for the Department of Ecology. “It’s only going to get more expensive.”
The effort is not the first to remove nitrogen in Puget Sound. Following blooms of phytoplankton in Budd Inlet near Olympia, a treatment plant there established nitrogen removal systems in the early 1990s. Budd Inlet’s nitrogen levels indeed dropped, but today, it still fails to meet water quality standards for some of the year.
Roberts said the Budd Inlet plant is an example to the others across the Sound: a reassessment of wastewater and its possible uses in cities. She noted the water the plant produces is clean enough that it is used to irrigate parks and supply non-potable water.
“They’re rethinking sewage treatment for the future,” she said.
Bremerton Councilman Eric Younger, the chair of the city’s public works committee, says he looks at the state’s nitrogen removal program through an economic lens: “Is a marginal improvement to Puget Sound water quality worth a doubling of our sewer bills?”
“Because it’s gonna hurt every one of us financially,” he said.
Ecology notes that millions of dollars in grants will be available and, through its “environmental justice” initiative, poorer communities will have more help to pay for the improvements. But in responses to criticisms of the new permit, Ecology replied that “the science is clear … reductions are required to meet numeric (dissolved oxygen) water quality standards in WA Waters of the Salish Sea.”
There has been pushback on that point, and fears that the cost of the program will lead to a decline in credibility residents have for future initiatives to help the health of Puget Sound.
Michael T. Brett, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering, casts the question this way: “How do we spend society’s money in a way that going to achieve the greatest benefit?” He wonders about the carbon footprint of the construction and operations of the new nitrogen removal infrastructure at all of the plants around Puget Sound, too.
“What I see the agency doing is saying, ‘We have a water quality standard,’ instead of ‘What is the problem we’re trying to solve?'” he said.
Others see nitrogen removal as part of an all-of-the-above strategy to help the problems of Puget Sound.
“When compounded by the effects of climate change, overfishing, coastal habitat destruction, forage fish population collapse, and other anthropogenic pressures, nutrient loading is a more serious issue than it may appear to be on its own, and drastic action is needed,” wrote Josh Carter, an environmental scientist for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s Natural Resources Department, to the Department of Ecology last summer.
Holtgrieve argues against a “one-size-fits-all” approach for all Puget Sound plants. Why not target specific waterways? But more than anything, he sees more important solutions. Better stormwater retention, for instance, means a preservative in tires recently found to harm Coho salmon could be better kept out of waterways. Bulkheads and other shoreline armoring along the sound could be removed to rebuild more natural shorelines.
“I’m all in favor of spending money, in my personal opinion,” Holtgrieve said. “But I want to see an environmental benefit. The reality is we have a really long list of things that need to get done and not infinite amounts of money to do it.”
Roberts believes the spend-it-on-something-else argument is just a way to avoid the problem of nitrogen discharge. She uses the example of a speeding driver complaining about other crimes.
“That doesn’t change the fact the fact they were speeding,” she said.
The stakes are high.
Stella Vakarcs, the senior program manager for Kitsap County’s sewer utility division, said staff is just beginning to track nitrogen more frequently and will need time to collect data. She said her division wants to be good environmental stewards at affordable rates.
“It’s a hard spot,” she said. “We need to look out for our customers, but we also want to look out for Puget Sound.”