New state water quality rules that could force cities to upgrade their sewage treatment facilities have sailed through a legislative committee. The Administrative Rules Review Committee could have blocked the new water pollution standards approved by the state Environmental Protection Commission in January, but Representative George Eichhorn, a Republican from Stratford, says they decided to let the rules go into effect next week.
“There weren’t enough votes to do anything about stopping them,” Eichhorn says. “So, I guess we’re just going to see how those rules work and how they’re implemented.” But Eichhorn worries the rules will force cities to install expensive new water treatment equipment. Eichhorn says it all depends on how strictly the Department of Natural Resources enforces the standard which seeks to make most water bodies in Iowa “fishable” and “swimmable.” Eichhorn says if the agency enforces that standard, there are towns “that won’t be around” anymore because they’ll fold due to the cost.
The Iowa Water Pollution Control Association which represents cities and industries estimates the new rules will cost Iowans up to a billion dollars in higher water bills. Ted Payseur, a spokesman for the group, says a billion dollars is just a drop in the bucket to what it will cost to meet the new water quality standards.
“Keep in mind that from the ’70s to the present, the cities have upgraded their wastewater treatment plants to the tune of millions and millions of dollars…and we’re still suffering from water quality in Iowa,” Payseur says. “That should tell you something.”
According to Payseur, studies show 80 to 90 percent of the pollutants in Iowa rivers and lakes come from chemicals and soil that runs off farmland and lawns. “I think the taxpayers of Iowa will be disappointed when they go to swim downstream, say, a mile from the wastewater treatment plant and it’s still muddy and still has a lot of organics in it and disinfection problems,” he says.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources director Jeff Vonk says that’s a valid point, but Vonk says he doesn’t have the authority to limit farm run off so he’s starting with cities and industries, hoping to increase pressure on everyone. “The point here is we are now moving down the road of setting an appropriate standard,” Vonk says. “It also sets the bar in a more comprehensive way going forward.”
Vonk says the new state rules were adopted to bring Iowa into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.”It’s a huge step forward for the state of Iowa,” Vonk says. “We will see improved water quality (because) of these new rules.” However, there is a bill pending in the Iowa Legislature that would delay implementation of the rules and the rules wouldn’t apply to cities that recently upgraded their sewage treatment facilities.