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Discussion: Cleaning Iowa's Rivers: Municipal Sewage Treatment & Water Quality in Iowa

posted on May 15, 2008 at 2:35 PM

In 1972, the federal government enacted the Clean Water Act to eliminate or reduce pollution of interstate waterways and tributaries. They did this to help improve sanitary conditions of surface and underground waters.

As we just saw, more than thirty years later, Iowa is still dealing with this issue.

Why is it taking so long?

Just how much has the state accomplished and how much more work is needed?

While some cities and towns are upgrading their sewage treatment and discharging cleaner water into streams, what about the pollution added downstream?

To help us find the answers to these questions we have with us Susan Heathcote, with the Iowa Environmental Council and Wayne Gieselman, Environmental Services Division Iowa DNR. Welcome.

Beck: Thank you both for being here. Wayne, let me start with you. We know that the Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972. Why are so many communities still struggling to upgrade their sewer treatment facilities 30 years later?

Gieselman: The Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972 in many communities in the 70s and early 80s, did a lot of work to upgrade and actually install sewage treatment systems. At that time there were grants available from the federal government that paid the majority of the costs for those communities.

This touched communities of certain population sizes and I don't want to go into all those details but Sheldahl, as an example, is actually a community that doesn't have a sewer system or did not have and we have about 600 of those communities in Iowa.

We still have a lot of communities without any kind of a centralized system or organized system to treat their wastewater. In addition to that a number of criteria have changed over time, our technology has changed and our ability to treat sewage and frankly I believe expectations of our citizens have changed. People expect cleaner water and want cleaner water than we've had over time.

But I do want to make sure that I state lots of communities did upgrade systems, did install systems and clean water is an ongoing process. Most of those 70s systems are now 25 years old. Their design life was about 25 years.

Beck: So, even those that took action are now needing new action?

Gieselman: In many cases they're needing to have more upgrades and new standards to be met.

Beck: I'm told that this could be a billion dollar problem if you added up all the infrastructural repairs that are needed across Iowa.

Gieselman: I think that's an estimate that the Department of Natural Resources actually put together a couple of years ago.

Beck: Susan, when Wayne talks about our attitudes have changed toward clean water -- did the DNR do an adequate job over these years in demanding or have our attitudes changed and we want more from them now?

Heathcote: One of the big things that is changing right now is the expectations. And about two years ago the state actually passed some new regulations and laws that required that all the perennial streams in Iowa be upgraded so that they would be protecting our aquatic life and recreational uses which includes the canoeing and kayaking.

But, also swimming and in some of our smaller tributaries we have a designation for children's recreational use and primarily looking at situations in urban areas or in our parks where even very smalls streams might get a lot of water contact from children who are playing and splashing around in the water.

Beck: Do you guys feel like you've had to nudge the DNR to get them to do these things?

Heathcote: Well, I think part of it was exactly what we're facing right now with the cost. And when we went to that new designation system and it looked like it was going to impact approximately 400 small rural communities that were discharging to these smaller tributary streams. And the cost of that plus the change in attitudes was something that took us a while to really embrace and I'm hoping that we're getting to the point now where we are embracing that.

Beck: You took legal action.

Heathcote: Right. Actually there was a threat of what we call a de-delegation of the Clean Water Act authority from the state of Iowa. And that would mean that the responsibility would have had to have gone back to the federal EPA in Kansas City to oversee our programs here in Iowa. That action was never taken because the state stepped up and decided that they wanted to continue to run the programs here in Iowa and therefore they had to administer the Clean Water Act programs according to the law.

Beck: Wayne, whose responsibility is it, then? Is it the local community's responsibility? Is it the state's responsibility? Who pays for the fact that there are so many communities that need help? You're assisting 60 communities? But you said there are some 600 that probably need help.

Gieselman: There are several sources of funding that helped to pay or helped communities to meet their obligations. But to answer your question, it is each individual's community's obligation to meet the standards under the Clean Water Act when they discharge treated sewage.

The sources of funding, the primary source is a state revolving fund which is actually federal funds that are administered by the DNR and the Iowa Finance Authority. That is a loan fund, it's not a grant type fund which is a big change from the 70s.

Rural development through the Department of Agriculture also has some funds that are available for small communities. The Iowa Department of Economic Development has some funding sources available and all three or four of those agencies get together on a real regular basis, look at the communities that are out there, the needs that are out there and try to make sure that we're allocating that money out as best we can to clean up our water supplies.

Beck: Do you suspect -- I know with the piece that we watched that Sheldahl was facing a possible fine -- do you expect to have to sort of use the hammer now and again to get communities to take the action?

Gieselman: Well, we certainly have the hammer to use. And Sheldahl, for example, started working with us in the year 2000 and it's now 2008 and they have finally made it there. I think the department tries to recognize the fact that communities have to identify sources of funding, they have to get consultants in to help them design systems.

In many cases they have to sell their residents that they need higher sewer rates. So, these are not things that happen overnight and the department is very aware of that. But we do try to stay actively involved with those communities, attend city council meetings, talk to them, make sure that they understand that this is a task that needs to be done.

Beck: Is this pace acceptable, Susan?

Heathcote: Yes, well, this has always been, you know, it's the reality of these changes cost a lot of money. As we saw in the film earlier these towns are often very small and the resources, both technical and financial, are really a barrier to moving forward. And one of the things that we've really been focusing on and the department also more recently is looking for lower cost solutions for these really small communities.

And just recently the department has put together several different options which are much lower cost and work very well for these very small communities like Sheldahl to utilize ecological treatment systems that take advantage of Mother Nature and helping with the treatment process, it actually sometimes provides better water quality as well as lower cost.

Beck: You mentioned communities that are taking action. A lot of rural residents have septic systems. Are you concerned about those?

Heathcote: Well, we are.

Beck: How big of a problem is that?

Heathcote: We estimate -- these are actually DNR estimates -- about 100,000 failing septic systems out in rural areas at farms and rural residences. The difference here is, of course, it's important and it's a problem that needs to be addressed but the concentration of those coming from one home versus the concentration coming from say 100 or more homes in an unsewered community or in the case of larger towns thousands of homes is going to have a lesser impact.

But we did pass some legislation here in Iowa that requires private septic systems to be inspected when the property is sold and so those systems will be upgraded too. So, there will be that investment from those private residents to upgrade their systems here over the next few years.

Beck: Wayne, there are parts of pollution that you do not have control over called non-point. Can you talk about some of the other pollution sources that we face that really the DNR doesn't have control over and should they?

Gieselman: Non-point source pollution is, if I can generally describe it, it's agricultural runoff or it is runoff from golf courses, it's runoff from yards, it's runoff that doesn't come from one particular spot bit it's dilute -- I say dilute but it's from everywhere else that isn't a point source for lack of a better description.

Beck: Meaning it's not coming out of the back of the factory where we can say it's coming from there?

Gieselman: Or it's not coming from the pipe at the end of the sewage treatment plant. It's coming from runoff caused by rain events and so a variety of things like that. The sources here in Iowa certainly are our agricultural practices, livestock, although we do have in Iowa a fairly decent livestock program and livestock is prohibited from discharging manure into the state under state law.

Certainly a controversial topic more from the sitting issue I think in many respects than the water quality issue although they are both combined. But probably our biggest challenge, I think, in the coming decades really is how do we do a better job of managing our soil resources, of managing our fertility practices, of managing the way we take care of farmland in the state, that is a huge source, all of those things are huge sources of nitrates, phosphates, these are not what you normally think of as coming out the end of a sewage pipe but those are big contributors to algae blooms and making our water a little bit green sometimes during the summer.

Beck: Susan, that being said, should the DNR have authority over these non-point pollution problems, mainly agriculture or runoff from fertilizer application on our own lawns or golf courses or what not? And if so, is that a cause you have to take to the legislature?

Heathcote: Well, we have been working with this voluntary compliance with incentives, cost year programs, trying to accomplish a lot on our non-point source problems and frankly the results have not been very encouraging. And so we do have to do something different. And I think regulation of especially really bad practices ...

Beck: Such as?

Heathcote: Well, for example, if you've got gully erosion or cropland that goes right up to the bank of a river or stream, those are things we know are bad practices. We want buffers along our streams and if we have a gully erosion start we need to address that and stop that severe erosion. With our manure applications we have to follow them under management plans and if we don't we can run into problems.

We need to start saying that if you're not following best management practices and you're causing a problem that needs to be stopped and if it requires some regulation I do believe that we're going to get there at least for a part of that problem. I think it comes right back to the same issue we were talking about with the small towns, though. It really is the responsibility of individuals to take action on their private land. And so we're going to have to change the attitude that this is a responsibility that we all have.

Beck: Let me ask you, the video we saw, recreations, we saw canoers in the water. Should Iowans feel -- you mentioned sometimes Iowa water might be kind of a goofy color or there might be a lot of gross on top of it -- should we feel safe getting in the water and playing in Iowa's water? Let me start with you, Susan.

Heathcote: Well, clearly this is an important part of our recreational and outdoor experience in the state of Iowa but there are hazards to be concerned about. For recreational uses I think one of the biggest concerns is bacteria. One of the things that we're hoping to see with the further regulation of the wastewater facilities is disinfection of wastewater that is being discharged into streams where we have recreational uses.

Surprisingly only a very small number of wastewater facilities in Iowa are currently required to disinfect. From a public health standpoint human waste is much more dangerous because it carries human pathogens and so even though the amount of bacteria coming from the human sewage is smaller than the agricultural sources, the danger of that is greater for public health reasons.

Beck: Wayne, I don't have a lot of time, but what do you think? Should I feel comfortable going and enjoying Iowa's waterways?

Gieselman: Actually I think for the most part you should. Some of the issues Susan mentioned are very real but over the course -- we now have stricter ammonia limits, we have stricter requirements for disinfection and all of our licensed permitted facilities do have to go through every five years and renew those permits so we get those things in place, it just takes some time.


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


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