Our Opinion: It still doesn't make sense

Thursday, March 16, 2006

New water quality rules by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources regarding the allowable level of ammonia/nitrogen or bacteria in wastewater plant discharge drew heavy criticism last year during public hearings across the state, including a hearing in Cherokee in October.

The DNR's actions are overseen by the EPA which monitors actions toward federal environmental goals of making all streams, rivers and lakes fishable and swimmable.

We don't know to what extent or for how long the DNR can disregard those federal goals, but it appears that at this point, the proposal for new water quality standards is a state DNR initiative.

An estimate of the cost of implementing the new rules was developed in August, 2005 in a Fiscal Impact Statement prepared by IDNR. The estimated total cost for the 411 wastewater treatment facilities to come into compliance ranged between $790,266,000 and $955,879,000.

The most outrageous element of this is that spending that kind of money would have little effect on water quality in the state.

Wastewater discharge accounts for a small percentage of the ammonia/nitrogen and bacteria in streams, rivers and lakes in Iowa. Most comes from rainwater runoff from land. Such pollution is actually on the decline with streams, rivers and lakes in the state cleaner than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to cut by half or three fourths the small percentage of the specified pollutants cannot be regarded as a rational requirement.

There is more bad news on top of the bad news as far as what the DNR is proposing. If successful in saddling municipalities with this expense, new standards for removal of chlorides and dissolved solids may add further expense for wastewater treatment plants.

Against the backdrop of strong protests, a civil engineering firm, Foth & Van Dyke, was retained by the Iowa Environmental Council to evaluate lower cost alternatives to achieve compliance with the new regulations and see what the impact would be on the overall cost. In a report, released recently, Foth & Van Dyke found that modifying existing processes rather than installing new processes can be less costly to install and operate, and would bring total costs to $363,651,000.

"Many communities may not need to install brand new processes. Retrofitting existing facilities may achieve the same results at a much lower cost. The study proves this," Rich Leopold, executive director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said.

If Leopold expects this report to lower the protest by even a decibel, he is mistaken.

Back in October we stated that if municipalities are required to make changes in their operations to meet the standards, that would have to be regarded as an extremely expensive symbolic gesture in the fight against water pollution and added that we do not believe in $960 million symbolic gestures.

We don't believe in $360 million symbolic gestures either.