The City of Grinnell will be building a new wastewater plant, to be completed by 2018, in response to newly enacted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. Though not addressing water quality issues resulting from runoff farming activities, the new plant will help improve the city’s environmental footprint and update the way it deals with certain byproducts.
“Starting sometime next year and hopefully being complete sometime early in 2018, with that we’ll be able to meet the new standards that are being imposed on us,” said Jan Anderson, Grinnell’s Water Resources Director.
These new standards focus on the amount of ammonia, phosphorus, nitrogen and chlorides wastewater plants are required to remove from water going through its processing.
“The EPA is basically focusing in on communities that had wastewater plants to start with,” Anderson said, explaining why the new legislation has been enacted.
Each year, the City of Grinnell receives a certain number of permits for how much water they are allowed to discharge along with the requirements for the allowed amount of chemicals present in the water.
“The current treatment processes just cannot meet those limits that the state has imposed in our new permit,” Anderson said.
Because parts of the plant date to the ’80s and even farther back, new limits on the processing of water can’t be supported by its technology. Because nitrogen, chlorides, phosphorus and bacteria like E. coli are new additions to the permit requirements, the old plant would not able to provide the type of filtration necessary for removing these contaminants.
“The current plant was last updated in 1985-86 but we’re still using some of the equipment and structures that go back to the 1950 plant. The plant is basically at the end of its lifecycle and we are actually changing our treatment processes to meet these new standards,” Anderson said.
To support this new change, the existing plant will be running at all times to accommodate for the new construction.
“With that, we’ll be able to meet the new standards,” Anderson said, explaining how the plant will operate until the new facility is ready to process.
Though the new plant will do a lot to reduce the environmental impact of wastewater in Iowa, this is not the largest issue when it comes to water pollution.
“This is a point source and not agricultural runoff … it’s an easy place to start as far as trying to improve water quality, not only for Iowa but for the whole United States,” Anderson said. But this water is a small fraction of the human-affected runoff causing damage.
William Stowe, the CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, sees a larger problem than just human wastewater. Formerly in charge of one of Iowa’s largest sewage treatment plants, located in Des Moines, Stowe is highly concerned about the continued deterioration of water quality in Iowa.
“As industrial agricultural impacts on surface waters adversely impact consumers, as an example nitrate concentration numbers are a key issue of agricultural groundwater discharge, in Iowa you see the largest concentrations in the summers and winters of the last two years,” Stowe said.
Overall, groundwater runoff from agricultural pursuits makes up a much larger amount of pollution and environmental impact than wastewater.
“Agricultural providers are virtually unregulated in this state,” Stowe said, leading to a huge amount of contamination by ammonia and nitrates related to farming fertilizer and pesticides.
Much of the water that originates in Iowa eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. “Roughly 10 percent of that is from wastewater and regulated sources but 90 percent is from agriculture and that’s unregulated,” Stowe said. “The real issue is agricultural polluters have to be regulated to be able to make meaningful contributions to the overall water quality in Iowa.”
Moving forward, the new wastewater plant is a starting point for the City of Grinnell in improving water quality on a local basis.
“What cities put out is just a small part of the problems we find with waters within the state, but these improvements will help and we’re trying to do our part,” Anderson said.
Small improvements in water quality will undoubtedly help Iowa as a whole control and mitigate water pollution efforts, but they can only go so far.
“The law associated with wastewater treatment plants is very well established and very well regulated,” Stowe said. “In a state where 90 percent of the land is devoted to agricultural production and in a state where you have 21 [million] hogs relative to three million people, you are heavily regulating a small part of the puzzle.”