Citing a legal dispute with Marana and the economic downturn, Pima County officials this month asked state regulators for more time to comply with rigorous wastewater standards at the county’s Roger and Ina road sewage treatment plants.

The county has until 2014, at its Ina Road plant, and until 2015, at its Roger Road plant, to lower the levels of nitrogen in treated effluent to levels set by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Doing so requires an extraordinary investment, according to county officials.

Making the required upgrades to its treatment processes, the county must replace the nearly 60-year-old Roger Road plant, overhaul the Ina Road plant and build a large pipeline connecting the two plants.

Officials put the cost of the work at more than $1 billion.

In a Nov. 4 letter to state regulators, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry asked for an additional five years to complete the process.

Huckelberry said the “worst economic doldrums in modern history” would limit the county’s ability to pay for the costly upgrades and treatment plant replacement.

He also referenced a lawsuit Marana filed against the county over the right to provide sewer service in the town. The legal battle, Huckelberry said, likely would affect the county’s plan to comply with state regulations at its two main treatment plants.

“If your regulatory deadlines are not extended, we will be forced to transfer the burden of financial compliance almost entirely to the existing rate base in an accelerated manner,” Huckelberry wrote.

Pima County has 260,000 sewer users, a figure that currently includes Marana residents.

A five-year extension would “certainly be sufficient time to allow the litigation between Pima County and Marana to be resolved,” Huckelberry said.

Pleading his case, Huckelberry pointed to an October decision by the Pima Association of Governments to approve the county’s sewer treatment plans, pending resolution of the lawsuit between the county and town or an extension of the county’s regulatory deadlines to improve how it treats effluent.

However, Marana officials take issue with the county administrator’s tactics, according to Marana Mayor Ed Honea.

The county should stick with its plans to comply with environmental regulations for the Roger and Ina road treatment plants, the mayor said. “We’re not the county’s enemy in this … We just want the county to recognize our right to run our utility.”

That’s all town officials ever wanted when they sought last month to include references to the sewer lawsuit in the county’s permit applications to expand and rebuild its facilities, Marana attorney Frank Cassidy said.

Last October, the town sued to end a longstanding agreement with Pima County to provide sewer services in Marana.

In the lawsuit, which remains in before a judge in Maricopa Superior Court, Marana seeks control of “non-flow-through” portions of the sewer system in town — the pipes underground and the Marana Wastewater Treatment Facility, a plant at Luckett and Marana roads that can treat up to 700,000 gallons per day.

In late September, a judge ruled that Marana can operate its own sewer utility. Furthermore, the judge said the town owns the sewer pipes running through Marana.

Ownership of the treatment plant, however, remains in dispute.

For county officials to use the legal spat as grounds to stave off certain environmental regulations, Honea said, is a bit like “apples and oranges.”

“Why should we pay for that plant, those upgrades when we’re not going to use them?” Honea asked rhetorically, noting that in the future Marana plans to build its own treatment plant.

In its plans to expand and retrofit its Ina Road plant and to rebuild its Roger Road plant, the county includes Marana as part of its sewer service area.

If the town were to prevail in its lawsuit, and gain control of the sewer services within its boundaries, then “Marana residents wouldn’t, for the most part, benefit from those improvements,” Cassidy said.

County Administrator Huckelberry did not return phone messages for comment.

But, in a Nov. 4 memo to county supervisors, he wrote: “Unfortunately, the Town of Marana has now intervened in this matter and requested that we be required to meet these deadlines, even to the detriment of our regional sewer ratepayers.”

“I understand the county is in a tough spot, but it’s not Marana’s fault,” Cassidy said.

Meanwhile, as the legal dispute continues, Marana officials have taken several steps to prepare to treat sewage.

The town has set rates and connection fees, all of which take effect in 2009, provided the lawsuit is resolved.

For its part, the Pima Association of Governments last month decided not to take action on Marana’s request for a sewer permit until the lawsuit concludes.

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