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Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District headquarters on Mission has hosted several meetings over the years where bans on phosphorus in detergents and fertilizers were pioneered.

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Cover Story: Ripple effect
2/26/2014 1:26:39 PM

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor

The last time Procter & Gamble crossed paths with the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, the topic of phosphorous was a contentious one. 

In May 2005, the manufacturing giant sent representatives from its Ohio-based corporate headquarters to Liberty Lake to oppose a decision by the LLSWD board banning dishwasher detergent containing phosphorous. P&G found allies in the Soap and Detergent Association, which flew out its own delegation to the Inland Northwest from Washington, D.C. 

"They pled their case for phosphorous in dishwasher detergent," said former LLSWD General Manager Lee Mellish. "They made the impression that it was extremely difficult and expensive to produce a product without phosphorous that would clean dishes and still meet public approval." 

P&G was familiar with LLSWD's pioneering efforts in the phosphorous-free debate going back to 1989, when the district passed a ban against laundry detergent with phosphorous. The resolution was an initial step in what eventually became a nationwide ban implemented in 1993.

Art "Skip" Toreson, whose tenure as LLSWD commissioner included passage of the detergent restriction, recalled the district being fully aware that the ban was the start of an uphill battle.

"We were determined to keep phosphorous out of the water and knew that detergent was a major source," he said. "We also knew it would be hard to enforce."

Mellish said the district's approach to phosphorous and watershed protection has placed it in the position of a pacesetter among special purpose districts.  

"Around the state of Washington and North Idaho, there are a number of folks, especially associated with water and sewer departments, that support the district's stand on phosphorus and many speak of following the district's lead," he said. 

Phosphorous vs. clean water
The origins of LLSWD more than 40 years ago coincided with the impact of phosphorous on the Liberty Lake watershed that reached troubling proportions by the late 1960s. The spread of toxic blue-green algae blooms - fueled by heavy levels of phosphorous from septic tanks - had turned the lake into a murky swamp, unsafe for public use.  

Along with the troubling impact on water quality, phosphorous also has a disturbing effect on the species that call that water home. When the forests of algae die and decompose, the process robs lakes and rivers of oxygen, crippling fish and other aquatic life. Locally, the corrosive effect extends beyond Liberty Lake to watersheds like the Spokane River and Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. 

LLSWD General Manager BiJay Adams, who previously served as the district's lake protection and water resource manager, said the Liberty Lake community rallied to support the transition to phosphorous-free dishwasher detergent nine years ago.

"Area residents' immediate response was to buy only phosphorus-free dishwasher detergents by Ecover and Seventh Generation," Adams said. "Long before the law took effect, Albertsons and Safeway managers were buying phosphorus-free products from outlying retailers to stock their shelves in Liberty Lake. It was a great example of the power of the consumer and the amazing citizens that comprise Liberty Lake."  

P&G takes phosphorous-free detergent worldwide
The latest wave in the phosphorous discussion came last month when P&G announced a plan to eliminate all phosphates from its laundry detergent worldwide within the next two years. P&G products represent one quarter of the global detergent market. 

"This is a huge win for lakes, rivers and streams around the world," Adams said.

While P&G had already halted the sale of laundry detergent with phosphorous in Europe and North America, the announcement on Jan. 27 is being heralded as a landmark shift by environmental advocacy groups like the North American Lake Management Association. Tom Agnew, longtime LLSWD commissioner, said P&G's decision will have a significant ripple effect. 

"This is huge," Agnew said. "Liberty Lake residents were a major influence in making this happen.  The district's 1989 resolution led to a U.S. ban in 1993 allowing only phosphorous-free laundry detergent.  Now, 21 years later, Procter & Gamble, who visited here to oppose our 2005 dishwashing resolution, has eliminated phosphorous."

Adams said phosphorus-free resolutions in Liberty Lake and across the state have substantially improved water quality. A single pound of phosphorous can generate 700 pounds of algae.   

"Since the automatic dishwasher detergent ban went into effect we saw phosphorus loadings to the plant decrease by nearly 17 percent," Adams said. "Similar results would likely have been observed with the laundry detergent if we would have been measuring our flows like we do today."

Additional efforts to phase out phosphorous
Beyond laundry detergent and dishwashing soap, LLSWD has made efforts to attack phosphorous on other fronts. A collaboration with Greenstone, launched in 2005, provides phosphorous-free fertilizer at no charge. The district also sponsors an annual beach and leaf clean-up with the city of Liberty Lake. Last year, nearly 13,000 bags were collected while 585 pounds of phosphorous were removed from the Liberty Lake watershed, aquifer and Spokane River. 

"With LLSWD being responsible for the Liberty Lake watershed, it has put the district in a position that not too many other districts have," said LLSWD Commissioner Steve Skipworth. "Protection of the Spokane Valley watershed and the Spokane River again have given LLSWD, with its water reclamation plant, another very important responsibility that not too many districts have. Our water reclamation plant has done a great job in the processing of the district's waste and, with phosphorous being a concern, any products that can remove the phosphorous have helped our community."

On the educational front, the district and the Washington State Department of Ecology have teamed up with community stakeholders to promote "The Watershed Pledge" that enlists residents and businesses within the Liberty Lake, aquifer and Spokane River watersheds to reduce water pollution from "non-point" sources such as wastewater, fertilizer, urban run-off, agricultural practices and livestock.  Liberty Lake was selected as a pilot community for the program.

Jeremy Jenkins, who succeeded Adams as lake protection and water resource manager, says being part of a sewer and water district with the kind of nationwide reputation as LLSWD "is pretty amazing."

"I have special purpose districts, consultants and lake associations call me from the Westside asking about phosphorous cleanup," Jenkins said. "For us, it's something we really have a handle on, management-wise."

Agnew says the phosphorous-free standards align with the district's motto of "serving people and the environment." He added that citizen involvement has ensured that clean water practices go beyond words in a resolution passed by the board.  

"The community and district it created are well regarded nationally for promoting phosphorous-free products, which is consistent with district values of environmental stewardship and customer service," Agnew said. "Citizen support for the district's ban of phosphorous in dishwashing detergent was amazing."

Learning from the past, looking to the future
With even narrower standards for water reclamation being required in the years to come, LLSWD is looking ahead to a mandatory upgrade of its treatment plant by 2018. Agnew said the district "continues ramping up a collaborative partnership among communities along the Spokane River to optimize efforts to improve and protect the river system."

"Phosphorous removal is one of the targets," Agnew said.  "It's a steep hill we're climbing, and it gets steeper with each improvement in the situation.  In recent years, the river has seen a 90 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorous getting into the system.  In the coming years, 99 percent of the remainder will be eliminated.  In the process, we may have helped impact global change." 


Clean Water Chronology 
A look back at LLSWD phosphorous-free initiatives 

Late 1960s: Liberty Lake residents realize the lake is dying from severe and toxic blue-green algae blooms. Residents petition Spokane County Commissioners to form a sewer district to clean up the lake from phosphorus-rich septic tank effluent. 

1973: Liberty Lake residents vote to form a special purpose sewer district in an effort to clean up the lake. 

Mid-1970s: A water quality study is published discussing the extent and nature of nutrient enrichment to the lake and providing possible treatment and restoration funding options.

1975: The Liberty Lake Sewer District receives approval for grant funding under the Clean Lakes program for a lake restoration project. Grant funding is awarded for in-lake restoration, stormwater management and the construction of a sewage collection system and wastewater treatment plant. This multifaceted restoration (1976-1984) totals $14.8 million, with $6.7 million coming from federal grants and $2.1 million from state restoration grants.

1982: The sewer system and treatment plant are completed. With a wastewater treatment plant in operation, the district is tasked with the costly process of phosphorus removal to meet discharge standards to the river.

December 1989: The district passes Resolution 40-89 banning phosphorus in laundry detergent. A nationwide ban follows in 1993, while the state of Washington is a year behind with its ban in 1994.

July 2005: The district passes Resolution 23-05 banning phosphorus in automatic dishwasher detergent. This resolution comes after a recommendation made by resident Tom Brattebo in a previous board meeting. Bans in Spokane, Whatcom and Clark counties follow in 2008. A statewide ban takes effect in 2010. There are now 16 states with bans against automatic dishwasher detergent containing phosphorous. 

November 2005: The district passes Resolution 46-05 banning phosphorus in lawn fertilizer within the watershed of Liberty Lake. 

2009: The district amends Resolution 46-05 with Resolution 18-09 banning phosphorus in lawn fertilizer district-wide.

Source: Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District

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