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Cedar Rapids, Storm Lake model how 'to treat all water'

"It's our water, and we took responsibility for it"

Jul 7, 2017 at 10:45 am
    Sustainable Landscape Solutions employees Donovan Smith of Kalona (left) and Randall Matthess of Coralville unroll straw matting after spreading fawn fescue grass seed on the sides of a bioswale along Wenig Road NE in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 18, 2017. The site is one of three urban water quality demonstration projects the city of Cedar Rapids is installing to study for future best practices. Permeable standpipes (seen at bottom right) were installed to allow for future addition of monitoring wells. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    Though Iowa’s agriculture-related pollution gets most of the attention — as it should, with an estimated 90 percent of the state’s nitrate pollution coming from farm fields — cities are doing their share to clean up the state’s surface water.

    Unlike farms, which are unregulated nonpoint sources of pollution, “we are point sources, we are regulated polluters,” said Jim Patrick, who retired May 19 as city administrator of Storm Lake.


    Under his leadership, that city has earned a reputation as a model of environmental stewardship.

    Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who administers the state’s Water Quality Initiative, the action arm of Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy, said Storm Lake and Cedar Rapids have been leaders in adopting green infrastructure practices as a means both to reduce the volume of floodwaters and to improve the quality of water.

    Both cities, he said, have adopted an attitude “to treat all water — not just the water within their municipal boundaries.”

    In Cedar Rapids, that attitude is evident in the city’s leadership in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, a collaboration with upstream farmers to improve the quality of Cedar River water entering the city, Northey said.

    Likewise, the city of Storm Lake is a key partner in efforts to reduce nutrients entering the North Raccoon River, whose often high nitrate levels in part prompted the Des Moines Water Works’ controversial and unsuccessful lawsuit against tile drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties, including Buena Vista, of which Storm Lake is the county seat.

    “Urban areas in general have really bought into the program. We have had a lot more grant applications than available resources,” Northey said.

    Since the Water Quality Initiative began in 2013, the state has awarded grants for 34 urban water quality demonstration projects — all focused on slowing the entry of stormwater into Iowa streams by absorbing it through conservation practices that have come to be known as green infrastructure. The goals are to improve water quality while reducing flooding.


    In 2016, both the city of Cedar Rapids and Coe College were awarded grants. Cedar Rapids received a $99,237 grant for a $242,000 project that included permeable pavement on a city-owned alley next to the Coe campus, which has been completed, and bioswales near three schools — Bowman Woods Elementary, Kennedy High School and St. Pius Elementary — to be completed this year.

    Coe received an $80,000 grant for a $221,000 project that incorporated permeable pavers to reduce runoff, which drains into adjacent Cedar Lake.

    The latest round of grants includes $100,000 for a Cedar Rapids project with a total cost of $206,600 to construct a pair of bio-retention cell systems to treat and reduce stormwater volumes along the Sixth Street SW corridor.

    “The whole idea of the bioswales is to slow the runoff after heavy rains,” said Sandy Pumphrey, a flood mitigation engineer in the Cedar Rapids Public Works Department.


    “We’re intercepting water that would otherwise flow down the curb and into the stormwater system,” Pumphrey said.

    Ideally, he said, no water from the bioswales will enter the stormwater system, though there may be exceptions following extreme rainfall events.

    “Whenever we can take water out of the stormwater system, that is a good thing,” Pumphrey said.

    The bioswales, he said, will be planted with native grasses whose roots will take up excess water and remove some of the nutrients from it.

    “Our hope is that the native vegetation will also look nice,” he said.

    Besides cleaning stormwater and mitigating flooding, Pumphrey said the demonstration projects — with explanatory signs — will “help the public understand and get used to green infrastructure,” which will become increasingly prevalent.

    The demonstration projects will help city officials improve the efficiency of similar projects in the future, he said.

    Former Storm Lake City Manager Patrick said most of the city’s water quality and quantity projects have involved collaboration among the city, county and state and between farmers and urban dwellers.

    “Anyone who grew up here in the 1960s who sees the water today stands in amazement. It is exponentially cleaner and healthier than it was, thanks to dredging and watershed protection.”

    - Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Art Cullen

    December 2016 editorial, 'Robbing lakes to pay agland'


    During a 2016 tour of state-funded water quality improvement projects, then-Gov. Terry Branstad said collaboration and forward thinking to address water quality issues and improve Storm Lake’s environment have made the community a model for the state.

    The city has used Water Quality Initiative funding to install three bioreactors, a created wetland and permeable paving, Patrick said.

    Northey visited Storm Lake in May to celebrate the conversion of lime lagoons into stormwater treatment wetlands — a project that received $100,000 through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative.

    When Patrick assumed city manager duties in 2010, in an era of frequent and severe flooding after heavy rains, “the thinking was to get rid of stormwater as fast as possible,” he said at The Gazette-sponsored Iowa Ideas symposium April 11 in Sioux City.

    The city had outgrown its stormwater collection system, and many parts of town, including homes and street intersections, were frequently inundated, he said.

    That thinking suddenly changed, he said, when the state required Storm Lake and many other Iowa cities to get Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permits.

    “We started managing stormwater as a resource to protect our lake and people downstream from us. It’s our water, and we took responsibility for it,” said Patrick, who helped Storm Lake secure nearly $25 million in federal grants to address flooding and water quality issues.

    Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Art Cullen, in a December article in the Storm Lake Times, wrote: “Anyone who grew up here in the 1960s who sees the water today stands in amazement. It is exponentially cleaner and healthier than it was, thanks to dredging and watershed protection.”

    “Storm Lake has been extremely aggressive in tackling its water quality and flooding problems,” said Jay Michels, a partner with Emmons and Olivier Resources, which has provided consulting and engineering services on several Storm Lake projects.

    Minnesota, with a great financial stake in clean water, has been embracing green infrastructure for the past 15 to 20 years, Michels said. In Iowa, which has a greater financial stake in agriculture than in clean water, “you guys are just starting to figure it out,” he said.

    More on water quality from Iowa Ideas:

    -- Can voluntary conservation efforts work? 

    -- Cleaning up Iowa's beaches

    -- Join us for the Iowa Ideas conference, Sept. 20-22, for water quality discussions in our energy & environment, agriculture and health care tracks

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