Area small town homes would pay dearly under water regs

Monday, October 17, 2005

Albert City residents would pay $70 more each month for water treatment under new water quality standards proposed by Iowa Department of Natural Resources officials. However, state officials seem to be backing away from putting teeth into strictly enforcing those standards.

In an effort to clamp down on enforcement provisions of the 1971 Clean Water Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is putting pressure on states to adopt standards that would apply to all waterways as well as municipal water treatment systems.

Buena Vista County Sanitarian Kim Johnson told the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the proposed changes could cost Alta residents another $35 a month for 20 years.

Albert City residents fare even worse, another $70 a month for the same period.

Those improvements are among the projected $650 million to $1 billion that it would cost for upgrading water improvement projects in 491 communities in Iowa.

"Many of our smaller towns are fixed-income households," Johnson said. She asked the Board to speak with area legislators regarding implementation of the new standards.

"Yes, we need to clean our water," Johnson said. "I'm not saying that's not the case. But it can't be on the backs of the small towns."

"Ammonia is the big thing," Johnson explained. She said small towns, particularly, need to update their treatment systems so only nitrates are emitted effluents rather than ammonia.

The City of Storm Lake and the Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., Storm Lake facility would not be impacted since they have already taken measures to emit only nitrates into the environment, Johnson said. However, smaller communities could feel a pinch once the proposed new standards go into effect.

"At $70 a household for 20 years..." conjectured Johnson, who lives in Albert City. "What could happen is that some towns could disincorporate and this could fall back on your guys' (Board of Supervisors) shoulders."

"No one knows the cost of this," said Board Chair Lorna Burnside.

Adam Schnieders, Director of the Water Resource Section of the DNR's Environmental Services Division's Water Quality Bureau, Wednesday offered potential costs not far from the figure cited by Johnson at Tuesday's Board meeting, quoting a possibly monthly per capita cost of $17.

Schnieders was quick to point out, though, that the proposed new standards are at "the very beginning of the rule-making process."

"You want to base this cost on a reasonable approach," Schnieders said. "It's not the department's intent to put any towns out of business. The EPA realizes that. The environmental groups also realize that."

Schnieders said the state had a revolving loan fund for water treatment plants. As far as hitting towns like Albert City with another $70 a month per household, said Schnieders, "It probably will not happen." He said those communities could probably apply for waivers, citing financial hardship. "These changes won't affect a town for a few years," Schnieders said.

Another impact to Iowa could be pressure by environmentalists to force the state DNR mandate that drainage ditch systems adhere to the same federal Clean Water Act standards intended for natural waterways. Those standards are intended to help water bodies sustain aquatic life, something for which drainage systems were never intended. Iowa has more miles of drainage ditches than any state in the Union, with 50 percent more than Illinois, the state with the next-highest number of miles.

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