Routt County acknowledges need for upgrade of outdated lagoon-style wastewater plants in Phippsburg, Milner |

Routt County acknowledges need for upgrade of outdated lagoon-style wastewater plants in Phippsburg, Milner

The wastewater treatment plant in Milner, seen here in 2011, is one of two lagoon-style plants in Routt County built in the 1980s and now need to be upgraded.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today archives

In 2001, residents near Phippsburg started noticing their water had a light brown tinge during spring runoff.

After several years, lengthy negotiations with the railroad company and a 2004 enforcement order from state health officials, Routt County purchased land near the lagoons and, in 2005, completed upgrades so the system was able to filter water, a capability required by the state.

Nearly 17 years after celebrating the Phippsburg wastewater treatment plant meeting basic state regulations, it is once again out of compliance — this time for not meeting seepage requirements.

This plant, and a similar one in Milner that hasn’t yet been flagged by the state as a problem, are two projects the county needs to address sooner rather than later, as each is more than 40 years old.

The projects are often invoked when commissioners discuss how to spend Routt County’s $5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. But the projects could also be strong candidates for funding from the newly passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that could bring $688 million in funding for water projects to Colorado.

“The core of our problem at those facilities is the fact that we have lagoon systems,” said Scott Cowman, county environmental health director. “Those lagoons are lined with clay, and that clay is relatively thin, just 6 inches.”

Cowman said the Milner plant is also seeing issues with meeting biological oxygen requirements, which would require draining the lagoons, something Cowman called “an expensive proposition.”

“Given money opportunities, is this the time to look at replacing the facility in Milner, as well?” Cowman asked commissioners Monday.

Adam Sommers, a civil engineer specializing in small-scale water treatment projects and president of Denver-based AquaWorks DBO Inc., said he would recommend a mechanical system to replace the lagoons.

“Lagoons are 50- to 75-year-old technology that work in some circumstances,” Sommers said. “They don’t work well in cold weather, which is why, in 2021, they’re really not great solutions for an environment like Routt County.”

Working only in Colorado, Sommers said he frequently is replacing lagoon systems with more expensive mechanical plants because they are more flexible and adaptable for the future. Currently, Sommers is working with the Morrison Creek Water and Sanitation District near Stagecoach to replace its wastewater treatment plant.

The plants the county would need would be much smaller than that one, processing about 20,000 gallons per day rather than the 350,000 gallons that Morrison Creek does.

A popular route for these smaller plants, Sommers said, is to get one built off site and enclosed within a standard shipping container. This can avoid extensive site work costs and allows crews to build the plant in a controlled environment.

Funding for the project will be another hurdle, as each plant could cost about $1.5 million, not including the cost to clean up and dispose of waste from the old lagoons. They will also consume more electricity than lagoon systems and will require someone to manage them.

Sommers and Cowman recommended the county conduct a project needs assessment for each of the projects, applying for matching grant funding from the Department of Local Affairs. This would put Routt County in an advantageous position when funding from the infrastructure bill becomes available, Sommers said, an opportunity similar to recovery from the Great Recession.

“As we saw with funding 12 years ago, projects that were shovel-ready got the money,” Sommers said.

Geovanny Romero, general manager of the Morrison Creek district, said they were able to get a combination of grants and loans for his project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When looking for funding, Romero said the county would likely need to do a rate study and raise the rate users of the two plants are charged for water.

“They will definitely fund projects,” Romero said of federal funding sources. “They will not fund low rates.”

Routt County Manager Jay Harrington said it was interesting that the USDA was funding the Morrison Creek project because he has never had a project with that agency actually happen, with them often bogged down in bureaucracy.

“We have to do it. It’s not a question of if or that we want to do this, we really have to do this,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “Let’s figure out what it costs and figure out how to pay for it.”

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