Wastewater plant upgrades stress small Iowa towns

Small populations shoulder high costs of requirements

Trickling filters (left) and packed towers for ammonia removal (back right) are seen Wednesday at the wastewater treatme
Trickling filters (left) and packed towers for ammonia removal (back right) are seen Wednesday at the wastewater treatment facility in West Union. The town is in the process of replacing its sewage treatment facility, which was built in the 1970s and struggles to make the benchmarks for pollutant removal set by state and federal authorities. The initial construction project will be paid for using funds generated by an increase in residents’ water bills and includes new sludge storage tanks and sludge dewatering equipment, and a maintenance shed. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

West Union’s Barrel Drive In is known for onion rings, malts and broasted chicken, all delivered by carhops under a blue-and-red canopy on Highway 150.

From serving fountain pop to washing dishes, restaurants use a lot of water. And Barrel Drive In owner Bev Kelck has noticed her water bill creeping up.

“You know it goes up,” Kelck said. “But is it something you can do anything about? No.”

West Union’s minimum water and sewer bill is $64 a month — nearly twice as high as it was three years ago. The increase will pay for the $7.5 million wastewater treatment plant project that will help the city of 2,500 stop discharging waste into Otter Creek, a trout stream in southeast Fayette County.

The city got a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant to help with the project, but most will be financed with low-interest loans from the State Revolving Fund and paid off by taxpayers, City Administrator Nick McIntyre said.

West Union is among dozens of Iowa towns spending millions of dollars to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities to meet stricter state and federal pollution limits.

City officials say they are glad to do their part for cleaner water, but wish the state provided as much money for required municipal upgrades as is available for voluntary water quality programs for farmers.


“It absolutely is the case that it’s frustrating that the folks in Des Moines seem to be forever willing to give industrial ag with their wasteful polluting ways a pass when they are the ones that contribute much more to the issue than small communities do,” said Jon Green, mayor of Lone Tree, a city of 1,300 in Johnson County that will start construction next year on a $4.5 million to $6 million wastewater treatment facility.

Large cities

Iowa has committed to cutting nitrate and phosphorus going into the Mississippi River by 45 percent because those nutrients — including those from other states in the basin — have been shown to create an oxygen-deprived “dead zone” where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Iowa’s 2013 strategy for making these cuts included requiring 102 of Iowa’s largest cities to make changes to their wastewater treatment process to remove nitrate and phosphorus.

If all the 102 large cities are successful in reducing their nitrate and phosphorus discharge, the state estimates it will represent a 4 percent nitrate reduction and 16 percent phosphorus reduction. This is a relatively small piece of the overall 45 percent goal.

The vast majority of nitrate and phosphorus going into lakes, streams and rivers comes from nonpoint sources, mostly agriculture.

Tim Whipple, general counsel for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, which represents 754 municipal broadband, electric, gas and water utilities statewide, said point source dischargers — including cities and industry — contribute just 8 percent of the nitrate in Iowa’s waterways.

“How much more are we going to crank down on permits for point sources when they are only 8 percent of the problem?” Whipple asked. “Unless you do something about nonpoint, you probably won’t have different measurements at the end of the day because we’re not a big enough part of the problem.”

Lack of funding

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund provided loans for $232.7 million in wastewater and sewer infrastructure projects in fiscal 2018, according to the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2017-2018 annual report. This includes large cities required to reduce nitrate and phosphorus and small cities that might be dealing with other pollutants, such as ammonia, E. coli and metals.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also provides limited block grants to small towns trying to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, but these usually cover just a sliver of the costs.

The Iowa Legislature in 2018 approved a $270 million water quality bill to support projects for the next decade that filter nitrate and phosphorus from Iowa’s waterways and decrease soil erosion. That legislation will provide $4 million for nutrient reduction this year and $15 million in fiscal 2021.


About one-third of that will be available in 2021 as part of the Wastewater and Drinking Water Treatment Financial Assistance Fund, which will provide $500,000 grants, prioritizing disadvantaged communities, projects that use alternative wastewater treatment technology and communities with the highest water or sewer rates.

The first round of applications are due Sept. 13.

“A lot of different priorities will be competing for that funding,” said Adam Schnieders, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources water quality resource coordinator. He added that many of the projects being undertaken by cities are due to aging infrastructure as well as stricter rules.

A proposed three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase to fund Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, created in 2010 by voter referendum but not funded, does not include any money for cites to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, Whipple said.

“Of all the talk about three-eighths cent for water quality funding, that money has already been spent according to a statutory formula,” he said. “None provided to municipal projects for water and wastewater. These are expensive technology. It was a major oversight by the Iowa Legislature to not bring infrastructure into that funding.”

Small towns

Iowa’s fight for clean water sometimes involves finger pointing between cities and agriculture. But many of Iowa’s rural towns are caught in the middle, facing pressure to reduce pollutants going into waterways while not having enough residents to pay for pricey wastewater system upgrades.

“Some small towns decentralize,” Schnieders said. “They move toward septic tanks and leach fields or cluster systems because it doesn’t make sense to invest in a centralized system.”

When McIntyre became West Union city administrator three years ago, the city already was under scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for sending untreated wastewater into Otter Creek during periods of heavy rain. In 2016, the city agreed to pay a $5,500 fine.

An equalization basin built two years ago has made it so West Union hasn’t had to divert wastewater since, McIntyre said.

But the big project is replacing a 1970s wastewater treatment plant.


McIntrye said he often lies awake at night worrying bids for the project will come in 10 to 20 percent higher than engineer estimates — which has happened elsewhere in Iowa — and the city won’t have the money to repay the state’s low-interest loans.

“I’m OK with the low-interest dollars, but you’re forcing a $7.5 million project on a community of 2,500 people,” McIntyre said. “The state and federal governments need to step up their assistance to these smaller communities.”

Lone Tree’s minimum water and sewer rates will go up this year from about $29 to $41 a month to pay for a new wastewater treatment facility there, Green said. The city is moving from waste lagoons to a modular treatment facility that can expand or change as government requirements change, he said.

And that’s another frustration for Whipple and some wastewater plant operators. While municipal plants are regulated by increasingly strict discharge permits, the Iowa DNR so far has declined to put limits on nutrients in lakes or streams, which Whipple said gives nonpoint source dischargers a pass.

“When the nonpoint folks come in, they aren’t permitted and they aren’t measuring,” he said. “There’s no baseline, and they are not held to a standard.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157;

Wastewater treatment plant progress

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy requires the state’s largest cities and industries to assess whether they can reduce nitrate and phosphorus flowing into public waters. Below is a 2018 update on these efforts.

• 154 wastewater treatment plants have been required to assess nutrient removal capacity

• 125 have been issued new, stricter permits

• 82 have submitted feasibility studies

• 24 have met targets of removing 66 percent of nitrate in waste

• 11 have met targets of removing 75 percent of phosphorus in waste

• 27 have committed to upgrades

Source: Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2017-2018 annual report

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.