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Fixing Iowa's Sewage Pollution Problems in Rivers and Streams

posted on May 6, 2008 at 3:03 PM

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There are many ways Iowans pollute their waterways. There is manure runoff from livestock feeding operations, underground tiles that drain excess water often containing fertilizer from farm fields and feed the flow into nearby rivers or creek. There are also leaking underground fuel tanks and septic sewage systems.

And, there is the threat from many of the more than 1,200 underground municipal and industrial wastewater treatment facilities. Statewide, much of the underground infrastructure is 50 to 100 years old -- and crumbling.

The cost to replace underground pipes and upgrade treatment facilities can cost communities millions of dollars. But if pollution violations persist, communities can face up to a $10,000 fine from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. We have a tale of two towns.

Big Creek State Park has had its share of warnings to swimmers about potential harm from pollutants in the lake. Searching for the source of the pollution, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources -- based on a tip --traced some of the contaminants upstream to a creek that flows into the north side of the lake. The search ended at Sheldahl -- a town of 137 homes, 2 1/2 miles north of Big Creek State Park.

Spud Harris, Sheldahl City Council: "Somebody reported to the DNR that we was running sewage down our tile line. They finally came up and check our tiles and said it was sewage. They'd found some sewage in it."

As long as Spud Harris can remember, Sheldahl residents -- like 160 to170 other incorporated, unsewered Iowa towns -- relied on individual septic tanks to handle all that was flushed down the toilet. The DNR says pipes from many of those tanks took liquid waste directly to a tile line that emptied at steam's edge.

Spud Harris, Sheldahl City Council: "I can't believe that it was, it was contaminated by the time it went in the Big Creek. There was too much tumbling and aeration on the way down."

No matter Harris' personal belief, he said the DNR ordered the town to upgrade its sewage treatment.

Spud Harris, Sheldalh City Council: "It was down to the point where the fine was going to start if we didn't get in the process and then they were after us really after that until they was sure we was doing it."

To avoid a $10,000 fine, in the fall of 2007, Sheldahl gathered 1 1/2 million dollars through a federal rural development grant and a loan to have a grinder pump installed at each home. The grinder processes the waste directly from the house and it is then pumped underground through a 3-inch pipe to a treatment lagoon two miles away in Slater.

For that service, Spud Harris says his town paid Slater an initial $185,000. There is also a monthly fee of $1,100. Sheldahl homeowners will foot much of the bill.

Spud Harris, Sheldahl City council: "It will be $43 a month basic for 45 years to pay off the loan. Most the people in this town are retired and that's $43 a month on top of what they got is going to hurt them that’s for sure."

The sewage treatment fee increase is much less for another town upgrading its sewer system -- Boone, a town of just under 13,000.

Luke Nelson, City manager/administrator, Boone: "We're doing a rate study right now for water and sewer both. Immediately we had a capital fund charge incorporated into our bills and that capital fund charge for residential use is $6.00."

The city of Boone finished phase 1 of a 3-phase, 3-year, $24 million dollar sewer and water upgrade. The upgrade began in 2007 – the same year the town reported to the DNR water pollution violations on 16 different occasions.

Violations included bypassing the treatment facility and dumping raw sewage, diluted with storm water, directly into nearby waterways.

Luke Nelson, Boone City Administrator: "We call it inflow and infiltration where you have storm water that is either seeping into your sanitary sewer line or if there's actually old cross connections. So ultimately, when you have these heavy rain events, it tends to pressurize the sanitary sewer line."

Boone is not an isolated case. The DNR is actively working with at least 60 communities on setting sewage upgrade timetables.

In addition, there are also nine urban areas that have multi-million dollar figure construction costs to separate what is now "illegally" combined sanitary sewer and storm water systems ... which at times have overflowed with diluted, yet untreated sewage into rivers and streams.

Other new standards include limits on the levels of contaminates -- such as e-coli and ammonia -- that can be discharged from a sewer facility.

The contamination levels are determined by a newly developed set of classifications for Iowa's waterways based on potential human contact with the water -- such as for recreational use.

But while waterways may get classifications for "cleanliness" -- and some towns improve their discharge -- it doesn't mean that downstream, there aren't other pollutants being added.



Tags: campaign 2008 Energy/Environment HEAT immigration Iowa livestock manure politics pollution rivers water water quality


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