After record flooding last month, the state's infrastructure problems are in the spotlight. That includes the issue that many rural communities dump untreated water into Iowa's rivers and ditches.
Even though many communities without sewer systems have lagoon or septic systems that can dilute pollutants, including bacteria and pathogens, some state officials have said they still believe proper sewer systems are needed.
The state has set up a program that helps communities pay for projects to build up-to-date sewer systems. But only about a dozen communities each year get added to the multiyear system of planning and grants appropriations, Dennis Ostwinkle, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told lawmakers at the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee meeting on Monday.
"Not all of those are being funded," Ostwinkle said.
The concerns come as cities such as Des Moines gear up for massive sewer improvements that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Some lawmakers worry that such big projects could siphon millions of dollars in state and federal grants from smaller communities without sewer systems, and delay their progress even further.
"I think it's a critical issue. I'm not sure what a lot of these small, small communities are going to do," said Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, vice chairman of the Government Oversight Committee.
The communities can apply for federal and state grants and loans to pay for the multimillion dollar projects. However, officials said that in most cases the grants only pay for a portion of the project costs. That leaves residents to pay additional monthly fees for the upgrades.
This year, the Iowa State Revolving Fund will offer cities about $190 million in low-interest loans to improve their wastewater systems, and Courtney said it's possible that lawmakers could create additional grants.
State officials said there generally has been enough money in the loan program, but the grants are in short supply and highly competitive. And, without grants, monthly residential bills could increase by more than $120 in some situations. With the grants, the typical bill increases about $40 a month.
"With the floods, we have new needs in those existing systems and, with limited funds, they may be a higher priority than the unsewered communities that are just getting started," said Patti Cale-Finnegan with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.