As the Southern Ute Indian Tribe pursues federal approval to set and manage water-quality standards, La Plata County officials are calling for a transparent process and clarity on which waters could be affected.
In 2015, the tribe submitted an application to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for “treatment in the same manner as a state,” a request known as TAS, which would enable the tribe to develop and administer water-quality standards, just as states are allowed under the Clean Water Act.
Now, the process is advancing, and the public has until Friday to submit comments to the EPA. On Tuesday, La Plata County commissioners will vote to submit a comment letter to the agency, including a request for clarification on potentially impacted waterways.
The map included in the tribe’s application does not detail specifically which surface waters, including wetlands and tributaries, stand to be impacted.
“We want this letter to begin a conversation with the tribe and the state,” Assistant County Attorney Kim Perdue said in a Monday meeting with commissioners. “We want to get a map on-scale that allows us to identify all waters that may be subject to the standards, and which trust parcels would have those waters flowing over them.”
The draft letter also asks that all potentially affected upstream discharge permit holders are notified individually, though it’s not a legal requirement.
TAS approval for the tribe would hold great implications for upstream National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit holders and eight La Plata County river basins, which would be subject to new standards.
Moreover, the tribe treated as a state is able to adopt more stringent standards than those the state has in place, even if they’re not technologically feasible.
And the town of Ignacio, which holds water and sewage contracts with the tribe, could have some expensive decisions to ponder.
“We get wastewater treated by the tribe, and our freshwater is also treated by the tribe,” Town Trustee Tom Atencio said. “We’re trying to figure out things like whether we should do our own wastewater-treatment facility for the town. This could really affect us.”
The state is updating water-quality standards in La Plata County, and both the state and tribe have indicated they want their standards to be synonymous, county attorneys said.
About 40 U.S. tribes have EPA-approved water-quality standards, which was enabled by a 1987 amendment to the Clean Water Act.
The Pueblo of Isleta, 10 miles south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande, was the first tribe to seek TAS to develop its own water-quality program in the early 1990s, forcing costly upgrades on upstream communities.
The city of Albuquerque sued the EPA, arguing that the tribe’s upgraded standards would cost the city $250 million on a new water treatment system. But the city lost, and the unprecedented case set an example for tribes throughout the country.
In 2005, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe received TAS approval and adopted standards in 2011.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s interest in obtaining TAS and developing EPA-approved water quality standards dates back to the 1990s, but the reservation’s patchwork of land ownership historically has created jurisdictional riffs and held up the process. The EPA and state disagree over which entity has authority over non-tribal fee lands in the reservation’s exterior boundaries. Traditionally, some entities within those boundaries have sought discharge permits from both.
Irrigation would not be impacted if the tribe receives approval. NPDES permits apply to “point sources,” such as sewage-treatment facilities. Agricultural water is considered a non-point source and therefore not subject to such regulations.
Proposed standards will likely surface within six months, at which time the EPA will again take public comments. Approval of the standards would be a separate agency action.
The tribe’s application can be viewed at epa.gov.