Water quality standards for sewage treatment plants in five Northern Virginia jurisdictions that discharge into the Potomac River could be relaxed when the State Water Control Board meets to consider proposed changes this week.
Water board regional officials said the new standards would not affect drinking water or fishing in the area but would allow jurisdictions to trim expensive treatment procedures until a study now under way is completed and permanent standards are set.
"We recognize that to meet standards that stringent is expensive for the jurisdictions," said Gary Moore, pollution specialist for the water board's regional office.
"You do get to the point where you've got to ask whether being as stringent as possible is all that beneficial."
Fairfax, Arlington and Stafford counties and Alexandria have indicated their support for the relaxed standards.
Prince William County has failed to indicate a position and unless it does, will be required to meet the higher standards, water board officials said. The county is objecting that the proposed standards are still too strict, said Moore. The board takes up the issues during sessions March 27, 28 and 29 in Richmond.
The relaxed limits are attractive to jurisdictions because they save money. Prince William officials said they could save $40,000 a year on only one of four changes proposed by the water board. Fairfax, which now spends $11.5 million a year to meet all four current water board standards, would save $5 million a year, said Richard Geozikowski, director of waste water management in Fairfax.
There is little organized opposition to the proposed changes from either environmental advocates or sport or commercial fishermen.
"We haven't taken a basic stand on the plants along the Potomac, but it is part of an ongoing debate," said Nikki Roy, a staff member at the Clear Water Action Project in Washington. "We don't think it makes sense to have crystal clear water and raise sewer rates. We also feel like it's too bad to have to downgrade a permit because a technology makes it too expensive to meet that permit."
Andy Lynn, owner of a commercial fishing business in Occoquan for 13 years, said the lowered limits bother him. "My gut feeling is that I don't like it," he said. "Over the past four or five years the Potomac River has been cleaning up. All I can tell you is that I have seen an increase in fish and an increase in the cleanliness of the river and I would hate to see it change."
The proposed standards would relax the limits on four substances discharged in water from treatment plants along the Potomac. The requirements would be similar for each county except in the limit on the level of allowable phosphorus.
Fairfax, Stafford and Prince William counties would be required to maintain the current phosphorus ceiling of .2 parts per million from June through September, but would broaden the limit to 1.0 ppm the rest of the year. Arlington and Alexandria could operate with the 1.0 standard year round.
"Generally, the main reason we look at phosphorus to the extent that we do is that it leads to algae and that was a big problem until a few years ago," said Moore. He said the limit on phosphorus is the most costly to maintain as well as the most significant in combatting algae along the Potomac.
Until amendments to water board standards were implemented in 1978 sport fishing on the Potomac was nearly ended because of the algae problem, Moore said. In 1979 the jurisdictions began to question the standards, saying they were arbitrary, too stringent and too costly.
Water board officials agreed in 1979 to have a study done and use the findings to update the standards. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science is currently doing the study, and Moore said the standards now being proposed are designed to serve as interim limits until the VIMS study is done.
Moore said Prince William officials have objected that they must meet the higher phosphorus standards four months of the year. "They want it at 1.0 all year," Moore said. "It seems to me they're getting a pretty good deal."
Water board regional director Tomas Schwarburg said Prince William officials were "procrastinating" on resolving the issue. Fairfax and Stafford counties also objected to the four months of stricter phosphorus limits, Schwarburg said, but then agreed to go along with the plan.