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Colorado refuses to ease rules for how much pollution gets discharged into rivers and streams

Members of the Water Quality Control Commission said they were shocked by the blowback to a proposed change that would have made it easier for industry, utilities to send more pollution downstream.

The Suncor refinery in Commerce City is pictured on Sand Creek from along the Sand Creek Regional Greenway on May 26, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The state Water Quality Control Commission has delayed for at least a decade a controversial proposal that would have allowed further degradation of Colorado waters already challenged by pollution 

In a scheduled review of the state’s “antidegradation” provision — a key to the federal Clean Water Act — some on the commission had sought to broaden chances for industries to discharge more pollutants into streams already considered heavily impacted by historic degradation. The rule currently in place says polluters must make a compelling argument that worsening the conditions of a stretch of river is unavoidable in creating economic growth for a community. 

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Colorado waters are divided into three categories: “outstanding” waters, where no degradation can be permitted; “reviewable,” meaning degradation is only allowed if there is no other way for the economic activity to move forward; and “use protected,” where industrial or city dischargers can degrade existing water quality in heavily impacted streams in order to maintain or expand their operations.  

Conservation groups and multiple local and state officials argued last week that the commission’s proposed change would have allowed many more Colorado streams to fall under “use protected,” even when the entity seeking higher pollution permits was the one responsible for historic pollution. 

Heavy industrial users, such as Metro Wastewater Reclamation, which treats all metro area sewage, could have used the opening to say they didn’t need to further clean up their discharge.

Citing the intense blowback against the proposed change by dozens of conservation and community groups testifying earlier in the week, the commission late Friday said current protections would stay in place until at least 2031. 

“The decision comes after extensive stakeholder engagement with the EPA, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, environmentalists and regulated entities, and it maintains the regulations as they are for the time being,” the state Water Quality Control Division said in a statement. 

A broad coalition of conservation groups, environmental justice advocates and state and local officials said they were happy to see further water degradation blocked for now. But they were disappointed the commission did not reverse a June 2020 decision affecting a few segments of urban Denver waterways that they say will allow polluters too much freedom to undercut hard-won habitat improvements.

“We are pleased with the Water Quality Control Commission’s decision to avoid a roll back of the antidegradation rule,” Josh Kuhn, water advocate for Conservation Colorado, said in a statement. But, Kuhn added, the coalition is “disappointed in the decision to allow industry to continue to pollute rivers and streams under certain circumstances. This is a continuation of environmental injustice and we will not stop fighting for the health and safety of all Coloradans.” 

The commission’s deliberations had been delayed from earlier in the week after a long list of advocates jammed a public hearing to assail the proposed overall change to how statewide streams are managed. 

Opponents of the change said it would open the door for existing permitted polluters such as Molson Coors, Suncor and Metro Wastewater to discharge more pollutants if they could show the water was already degraded beyond a chance for improvement. The industries could have asked for the leeway even if they were the ones whose waste had previously damaged streams, such as on the South Platte River through Adams County. In that stretch of river, discharge from Metro Wastewater’s treatment facility makes up most of the stream volume for much of the year. 

Groups testifying against the change ranged from Adams County commissioners to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, to Trout Unlimited and Green Latinos. Industrial dischargers, meanwhile, had argued in submitted filings that their use of waters supported important economic interests for communities, and that some heavily used Colorado streams simply won’t support more aquatic life than they already do. 

“I was a little caught off guard. I did not anticipate having such a large conversation about antidegradation at this hearing,” said commissioner April Long, in deliberations on Friday. “We got to hear from a lot of passionate and educated parties.” 

Conservation groups did not get the relief on Friday that they’d sought since a 2020 commission decision declining to upgrade protections for urban stretches of the South Platte River and Clear Creek, which flows past the Molson Coors plant. They said they will continue to seek ways to tighten down on pollution discharges into those waters and give them a chance to recover further.

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