By Baker City Editorial Board
Phosphorus is among the more humble elements but it could turn out to be more costly to Baker City residents than gold.
The issue is sewage.
Or, as engineers prefer to call it, wastewater.
The city's challenge is to dispose of this stuff in a way that causes the least damage to the environment.
For several decades the city has piped wastewater to a quartet of lagoons a mile or so north of Hughes Lane. The purpose of these lagoons, also aptly known as settling ponds, is to let the, well, solid constituents of wastewater fall to the bottom, leaving somewhat less polluted water.
There are other steps to the process, but the basic idea is to leave wastewater in the lagoons for a while and then pipe it into the nearby Powder River.
City officials have known for several years that this traditional practice would eventually run afoul of state and federal laws. The prime concerns are that the wastewater is too warm and that its pH level harms fish habitat.
Rather than wait for deadlines to be set, city officials have spent considerable time looking at options. In 2010 the City Council decided that the best alternative, not least because it appeared to be the cheapest, is to build a pipeline to carry wastewater from the lagoons to a site along Baldock Slough, east of Interstate 84 near the Baker Valley rest area, where the wastewater would create a wetlands.
Several cities have done this, including La Grande.
Which is where phosphorus enters the scene.
In the past few years regulatory agencies, as is their wont, have changed the rules. The current concern, City Manager Mike Kee said, is that phosphorus, which can damage fish habitat, would leach from the wetland and get into the Powder River.
A DEQ official urged the City Council to consider an alternative: using wastewater to irrigate a crop such as alfalfa. Kee said most of the phosphorus would be taken up by the crop, which is then harvested, so the phosphorus doesn't get into the river.
Here's the rub: Land application, as the latter method is known, likely would cost twice as much as the wetlands option. The reason, Kee said, is that with land application the city would have to build more lagoons. The current lagoons are almost at capacity, and land application is feasible for only the four or five months of the year when crops are growing.
The advantage to wetlands is that wastewater can be piped to the site year-round, eliminating the need to add lagoon capacity.
A possibly reason for optimism, Kee said, is Roseburg. That city is putting its wastewater into a wetland, and a study suggested that it would take a century for enough phosphorus to accumulate to pose a risk to nearby streams.
We'd like to believe that regulatory agencies will be flexible, and at least consider that forcing Baker City residents to spend twice as much money for a possibly negligible environmental benefit is neither wise nor fair.
But we're not confident.
Besides which, even if the city can solve the phosphorus problem, there is the not minor matter of the rest of the Periodic Table from which regulators could potentially select the next danger.
Have you counted the elements, many of them nasty pollutants, on that thing?