Wastewater help comes to town

Nearly 97% of the world’s water is saltwater and 2% is locked in ice caps and glaciers, leaving 1% for personal, agriculture and manufacturing needs. What about Iowa? With hundreds of lakes, ponds and wetlands, and 71,665 miles of streams and rivers, it seems Iowa has abundant water resources. But less than 1% of Iowa’s land is covered with water.

One way rural Iowans can help preserve water quality in Iowa is by properly disposing of household wastewater. Installing community-wide sewer systems, or legal septic systems, can help protect water resources from pollution.

“It is a tremendous undertaking for a smaller community to construct a new wastewater system,” says Bill Menner, USDA Rural Development state director in Iowa. “However, the importance of building a system that will create a cleaner environment and drinking water for your children cannot be underestimated.”

While properly working individual septic systems function similarly to sewer systems by filtering out bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing pathogens, septic tanks that do not receive follow-up treatment are hazardous for the surrounding ecosystem. Septic tanks must be pumped every three to five years and failure to do so can result in surface and groundwater contamination. Proper maintenance is important for any type of wastewater treatment system.

“Sewage that isn’t properly treated contains high levels of organic material and bacteria, such as coliform bacteria or E. coli,” says Daniel Olson, environmental specialist at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “The untreated wastewater provides a favorable environment for disease-causing bacteria to flourish.”

In a shared sewer system, the wastewater is taken away to a centralized treatment facility that is equipped to treat the wastewater and discharge it to a waterway under permit requirements. The maintenance is handled by the community’s wastewater operator. With septic systems, the maintenance is typically left to the homeowner unless a maintenance agreement is required by the city or county.

Leaders in the southern Iowa town of Promise City in Wayne County have discussed installing a wastewater system for more than 20 years. Taking on such a large project did not seem financially feasible in a small town with a population of only 110.

An interest in the project resurfaced a few years ago when water samples taken by DNR found improperly treated wastewater. The individual onsite septic tanks had created an environmental hazard because they had not received the necessary follow-up treatment. In fact, the polluted runoff was flowing into Rathbun Lake, the same lake where most of south-central Iowa gets its drinking water.

Residents mixed on new system

“Many residents realized that a wastewater collection system would improve both the quality of life in Promise City and property values, yet there were others who dreaded another monthly bill,” says Brenda DeVore, mayor of Promise City. “Thankfully, our community was able to secure a combination of grants and loans from USDA Rural Development and the Community Development Block Grant Program to help finance this huge project.”

Last summer work began on a project to construct a central wastewater system that would properly treat the sewage.

The system will treat wastewater with lower economic and environmental costs for the 60 residential and five commercial users. “This project was a huge undertaking for a small town,” says DeVore. “Communities considering such a project should have knowledgeable advisers for assistance in navigating all the steps.”

USDA’s Rural Development Agency assisted by providing the city with a $455,000 loan and a $580,000 grant. Promise City also received a $105,000 Community Development Block Grant.

Scott is a communications intern with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.


HELPING HAND: Funding from USDA Rural Development and a Community Development Block Grant helped finance the construction of Promise City’s new wastewater treatment system. It will be completed this spring.

This article published in the April, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.