From The Editor | September 19, 2016

Testing The Future Of Wastewater For Small Towns

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

In a lot of ways, Goodell, IA, is the typical rural American town. It was founded in 1884 with the construction of a depot along the B.C. R&R railroad line, nestled in the north of the state. It hosts an American Legion post and a “Betterment Group” for community improvement. Every summer, citizens attend the Watermelon Day festival.

With a population of 179, it’s served by the type of small wastewater treatment and collection facility that accounts for 69 percent of the country, according to a 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). That also makes the challenge of paying for clean water in Goodell all too typical of small towns.

“EPA has estimated that, because small systems lack economies of scale, their customers face a particularly heavy financial burden to meet needs for clean water investments,” the CRS report reads. “The smallest cities are likely to experience the largest overall percentage increases in user charges and fees as a result, EPA has said.”

The wastewater treatment challenges faced by towns like Goodell, which is considering a new wastewater treatment system that would raise rates by as much as $95 a month, has inspired engineers at the University of Iowa (UI) to develop the “Iowa Small Community Wastewater Research Program” to provide more options for affordable treatment.

The program, which seeks to help towns of 2,000 residents or fewer, would test commercially viable wastewater treatment technologies and collect the information required for certification from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The thinking is that with more innovative technologies at their disposal, towns like Goodell could find lower-cost options.

“Goodell is smart, but resilient,” said Dr. Craig Just, a UI civil and environmental engineer and the project lead. “The economics of scale start to take a big toll on towns with small tax bases, since many treatment technologies have gotten more expensive and water quality regulations have become more restrictive. If you can’t get an affordable glass of water to drink and if you can’t afford to flush your toilet, then your town is vulnerable.”

UI’s Environmental Engineering & Science program has been discussing the need for affordable small town wastewater treatment options for 15 years, said Just. He believes that the program could impact more than 800 communities throughout Iowa in the next 25 years and save small towns more than $100 million in wastewater upgrade costs.

“About half of the cost to upgrade a town like Goodell comes in the pipes required to convey the waste to some sort of treatment option,” Just said, adding that his research is concerned with treatment methods that do not require conveyance pipes. “The other half comes from the treatment option itself. If we can make that element of the system more affordable and easier to operate, then a town like Goodell can benefit.”

Just’s hope is to install and test up to three technologies at a time in a proposed wastewater technology park at the Iowa City Wastewater Treatment Plant. The site could also be used to test small-community systems and figure out how to optimize them.

“For now, we are focusing on technologies that are in use in other states but have yet to be proven effective and robust in Iowa’s climate, particularly winter,” Just said.

While Iowa City administrators support the proposal, according to Just, the city council still needs to review and approve the plan. After that, the program would have to find an estimated $2.75 million to launch and then $1.8 million in annual funding to test the technologies, train operators, and report results.

“I’m on the road talking about this program all the time,” said Just. “We have developed realistic cost estimates and have had all the discussions needed with Iowa City to move forward. The funding must come from the Iowa legislature … I have been pressing the issues from all angles, hoping that eventually we will push past the barriers and seek the opportunities available to us.”

If those efforts prove successful, it will be some time before any new technologies are proven effective and then even longer until they can begin to make an impact for rural communities. With more infrastructure failing and regulations becoming stricter all the time, towns like Goodell can’t wait long for an answer.