Government

Many Iowa water quality projects vie for only small pool of money

'People are going to be disappointed' in the small grants being awarded

Trickling filters (left) and packed towers for ammonia removal (back right) are seen Aug. 14 at the wastewater treatment facility in West Union. The town is in the process of replacing its existing sewage treatment facility, which was built in the 1970s and struggles to make the bench marks for pollutant removal set by state and federal authorities. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Trickling filters (left) and packed towers for ammonia removal (back right) are seen Aug. 14 at the wastewater treatment facility in West Union. The town is in the process of replacing its existing sewage treatment facility, which was built in the 1970s and struggles to make the bench marks for pollutant removal set by state and federal authorities. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

State money authorized by 2018 legislation to improve water quality is starting to trickle out to agricultural and urban projects, but one program coordinator warns “people are going to be disappointed” by the small grants.

The Iowa Legislature last year 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. Senate File 512 will provide $4 million for nutrient reduction this fiscal year and $15 million in fiscal 2021.

Two state agencies — the Iowa Finance Authority and the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship — were required to report to Gov. Kim Reynolds this week any expenditures from the fund.

The Agriculture Department reported spending $47,915 in fiscal 2019 on an easement for a wetland restoration project along the Iowa River in north-central Iowa. The total project is expected to cost $187,915 and be complete by Dec. 31. While this was the first project to have SF 512 funding, the agency reported six other projects worth $2 million are enrolled in the program once money is available.

“There’s the lag,” said Lori Beary, community development director for the Finance Authority.

Although the legislation was signed into law in January 2018, the program was funded with an excise tax that is collected by utilities and funneled to the two state agencies. The Finance Authority did not submit a formal report this week because the agency didn’t get its share of the funding until Aug. 24, after fiscal 2019 was over.

“It took a full year for us to get the funds,” Beary said. “This is the first round.”

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The authority will distribute $737,250 to cities and other agencies that applied for grants through the Wastewater and Drinking Water Financial Assistance Program. Many municipalities are counting on state funds to help pay for multimillion dollar wastewater treatment plant upgrades required to meet stricter pollution limits.

The Finance Authority received 27 applications with many applicants requesting the full $500,000 allowed under the law, Beary said.

“People are going to be disappointed,” she said. “You announce a grant program and you get 27 applications. Even though the legislation says you can get a grant of up to $500,000, it won’t be even close to that.”

The Finance Authority also has $829,700 to award in loans through the Water Quality Revolving Loan Fund established by SF 512. Those applications have not yet been finalized.

The Agriculture Department on Tuesday opened applications for urban conservation projects to be funded under SF 512. Those applications are due Dec. 6.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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