The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, unsatisfied with interim measures to deal with the continued pollution of its water supply by the town of Bayfield, has asked the state to immediately halt the release of effluent from Bayfield's maligned sewage-treatment plant into Dry Creek.
In a letter sent to the town of Bayfield and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Jan. 7, Southern Ute Tribal Council Chairman Matthew J. Box wrote that though the tribe "understands and appreciates" Bayfield's efforts to curb the polluting, the tribe has asked the state to take immediate enforcement measures.
"Based on the Tribe's review of recent correspondence between Town and State, and based on media reports and conversations between Town and Tribal staff, we have learned that not only have discharges from the Town's Gem Village wastewater treatment center been polluting Dry Creek but also that the town does not intend to take actions and measures to assure that the pollution will not recur during 2009," he wrote.
Box adds that waiting for the new plant to open, which is estimated to take between eight to 10 months, is "not an option" because of harmful environmental consequences.
The issue now rests on finding a balance between stopgap efforts and long-term solutions.
Tribal and town officials have exchanged calls since Jan. 1, going over proposed interim solutions to address the situation, an issue described by all sides as a protracted problem with few bad guys or easy answers. Some ideas to ease the problem have included increasing fines for illegal dumping and grease-trap inspections at restaurants.
The tribe has now said Bayfield is not willing to go far enough.
"I want to state clearly, we respect the tribe's position that they want a clean environment, a clean water supply. We want that too," Bayfield Town Manager Justin Clifton said. "This has been an exhaustive, comprehensive effort to reach regulatory compliance as fast as possible, but it's hard to undo 10 years of neglect in such a short period. None of this is simple."
Clifton was referring to the rocky term of the Bayfield Sanitation District, a special district now defunct and accused of maintaining faulty equipment and service. Bayfield decided to take over the district in May, 2006. On Jan. 1, 2009, the town assumed all assets and liabilities of the district, including its responsibility to limit human waste release into Dry Creek, which flows onto Southern Ute land and into the Pine River. Clifton said Bayfield - with a population of 2,100 - has spent or committed about $5,000 per resident on this issue.
"What's really important for people to realize is that we didn't create this problem; we took over the sanitation district to fix it. We have expounded countless resources trying to fix this problem," he said. "I don't know another community anywhere that has spent the kind of money that Bayfield has to fix a problem like this. We've done it because of our commitment to fix the sanitation district."
Clifton said he worries that once permits and funding are secured for the short-term fixes, four to five months will have passed, leaving only about four to five more remaining before the long-term upgrades are scheduled to be in place. The money spent on these short-term answers won't do enough and could be better spent elsewhere, Clifton said.
But some think Bayfield's focus is in the wrong place.
"This is unacceptable to us. No one seems interested in ensuring that this environmental problem is fixed. It's degrading our water quality and impacting our wildlife," said Michiko Burns, Water Quality Program Manager for the tribe.
Burns described the way sewage can choke a town by killing off the food supply of the smallest members of an ecosystem first and precipitously working up the food chain.
"Once the bugs go, that's it," she said.
Attorney Sam W. Maynes, general counsel for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said the tribe understands the problems Bayfield faces are the product of years of mismanagement by the Bayfield Sanitation District, but the tribe cannot take chances with its water.
"Just because it costs a lot and just because it may take some time, may not be a reason to avoid making the improvements," he said. "We're disappointed that noncompliance has gone on for what we feel is an unacceptably long time, so we're anxious to see a solution."
Dave Akers, Clean Water Facilities Program Manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has been in regular contact with the tribe and Bayfield and said he doesn't expect this issue to make it to court.
Based on a three-month review of the Bayfield facility, he said, the state believes a solution can be reached without the state imposing fines, involving the Environmental Protection Agency or pursuing legal action.
"There are violations that are occurring, but their performance over the last few months has shown improvement and, I think, can be expected to continue."