Iowa Department of Natural Resources officials were expecting only 10 to 12 people at a public hearing held in Cherokee on Tuesday, but about 10 times that amount crowded into the lower level of the Cherokee Community Center to hear about proposed new standards on discharge from wastewater treatment plants.
Adam Schnieders, senior environmental specialist, conducted the hearing with assistance from Chris Spoelstra, environmental specialist.
According to DNR estimates, the proposed changes would result in wastewater treatment improvements costing between $790 million and $960 million in the state. The proposal is to reduce the discharge of ammonia/nitrogen and bacteria into streams and rivers. New standards on control of chlorides and total dissolved solids (TDS) will likely be proposed in a few years.
Some towns would need little or no changes to their wastewater treatment plants as a result of the new standards, some towns would need to make major equipment purchases and others would need to build new wastewater treatment plants.
In response to a question by Martin Zauhar, Cherokee City Council member, Schnieders said that Cherokee would not likely need any changes to its wastewater treatment facility for control of ammonia discharge. It might need some disinfection but this would be less costly than ammonia control would be.
Schnieders said the smaller communities in the area could face some major expenses.
Schnieders indicated that throughout the state, the smaller communities will generally face a larger expense per capita than the larger communities as the result of the proposed new standards.
The cost of improvements to wastewater treatment plants or new construction would be paid for through increases on the monthly water/sewer bill of residents served.
The initiative on the part of the DNR is done as an effort to meet the standards of the federal Clean Water Act.
"The goal of the federal government is to protect all water at all times," Schnieders said.
The meeting in Cherokee Tuesday was one of six public hearings to be held throughout the state to explain the proposed changes and to receive input. Schnieders said there are several possible courses that the proposal can take. His personal prediction was that it would be called for review by the state legislature, likely about March of next year.
There are several proposed modifications to the present standards, the two primary changes would be requiring the maximum discharge of pollutants be applied at critical low flow rather than protected flow and redesignating some streams from intermittent to perennial.
The critical low flow is what is established as the 10 year low flow in streams and rivers. The protected flow is closer to an average flow in summer. The lower the flow of water, the more concentrated the pollutants will be so a lower flow standard requires more removal of pollutants before discharge.
Streams that are intermittent, that is those that dry up for part of most years, have a less stringent protection from pollution. They are protected only from acutely toxic effects while perennial streams, those that have flow all year long on most years, are protected to a higher degree. Schnieders said some streams that are actually perennial have been mislabeled intermittent.
Also, a continuous flow stream resulting solely as a result of a wastewater treatment plant discharge will be regarded as a perennial stream, although they are now exempt from such designation.
Schnieders said that there has been pressure from environmental groups in the state for these proposed standards but that is not the reason for them. "That did speed the process," he said.
Schnieders acknowledged that despite the large expense, the change of standards for discharge from wastewater treatment plants will not significantly change the quality of water in streams, rivers and lakes in the state.
The majority of pollutants, 80 to 90 percent according to the DNR, results from rain water draining from the land rather than from discharge from municipal or industrial wastewater treatment plants. The proposed standards presented have no impact on this source of pollution.
People at the meeting had the opportunity to submit written comments or make spoken comments that were recorded. The written comments and oral comments will be transcribed in a DNR report along with responses from the DNR to questions contained in the comments.
There were 12 people at the meeting who made oral comments. Of these, nine were clearly opposed to the DNR proposal and one was clearly in favor of the proposal. One of the other two raised questions although not clearly indicating opposition or support. One objected to what he felt as the portrayal of farmers as polluters.
One of those who spoke in opposition to the proposal also echoed the sentiment that farmers might have been unfairly blamed for pollution. He noted that water has become cleaner in the state in recent decades. He said more can be done but more regulation is not the way to go about it.
Another objector was Steve Casey, superintendent of the Cherokee Wastewater Treatment Plant. "I oppose the proposed rules in the current form," Casey said, "The cost would be staggering."