Sanitary District embroiled in phosphorous dilemma

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The trustees and staff of the Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District are caught in a battle between older regulations and modern science.

Steve Anderson, the sewer district's superintendent spoke with the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors last week in an attempt to update them on the progress of the nutrient reduction mandate from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"The trustees do not want to increase the levy rate. Their goal is to keep it the same as it has been for many years," Anderson says. "We on the staff are given that specific budget and we have to run our operations totally from the money within that budget. The trustees have not wavered."

New mandates from the DNR will cause major challenges to the budget.

"All waste water permits are issued by the DNR," Anderson explained. "Ours expired in 2005 and they let it remain that way for 10 years." The IGL Sanitary District was finally granted a new permit in 2015 with stipulations.

"We have to reduce our phosphorus and nitrogen emission into Milford Creek," he said.

Area residents know the waterway as Mill Creek, a name given to it over a century ago.

"The state said they already had a Mill Creek so ours had to be called Milford Creek," Anderson said.

Milford/Mill Creek is listed as an impaired waterway. The creek flows into the Little Sioux River, which is not impaired. Little Spirit, Big Spirit, West and East Lake Okoboji, Upper Gar and Minnewashta all flow into Lower Gar, a lake that is classified impaired.

"Lower Gar flows into Milford Creek," Anderson continued. "But the DNR wants us (the Sanitary District) to solve the impaired conditions of the creek. They have said nothing about the lakes, the farms, two gravel pits and large industries along the 4.5 mile long creek."

The cost differs with the solution. To reduce the phosphorus level to 1.0 mg would cost $1 million in new equipment plus addition operational expenses. To reach the ultimate mandate of 0.5, an additional $7 million would be needed, plus operating costs.

Anderson has been working with local DNR personnel and others impacted to find a solution within the two-year time frame established in the new permit.

"We know that the tests that were done took place back in the early 2000s. The water flow was higher then," Anderson continued. "Even the DNR officers up here have looked at the reports and found some things missing, some testing that apparently wasn't done or don't incorrectly. Also the photos submitted with the report were clearly taken on Lower Gar, not Milford Creek."

Anderson has been in lengthy conversations with DNR officials in Des Moines. He has asked for complaint reports and other testing documentation.

"They say they can't find any documentation," Anderson said.

A compromise was proposed by Anderson. Since they could not find the necessary paperwork, he asked the state officials to retest using today's much-updated technology. State officials suggested the sanitary district do the testing.

"I am not sure how much that would cost but since we didn't make the mistake, why should we incur the expenses to redo it?" he questioned. "The impaired Lower Gar is putting an extra burden on the Sanitary District already."

The Sanitary District Trustees have another option to consider.

"The trustees are looking at option number two; possibly putting in a pump station directly to the Little Sioux River," Anderson continued. "They are not wanting that but are pondering the costs since the Little Sioux water restrictions are not as stringent since it is not an impaired waterway."

"We have two years to come up with a solution," he emphasized. "We have to remember that every dollar going into Milford/Mill Creek takes away from the Lakes quality that we are supposed to be monitoring and improving. And the trustees are dedicated to try to keep the levy rate the same."

Sanitary District trustees include Bob Boettcher (president), Jim Rohlfsen, Kae Hoppe, John Senn and Alan Bailey. The district has 12 employees in addition to the superintendent.

The strategy for now is to get plans in place to reduce nutrient levels and negotiate with the DNR to move up their testing to today's standards," said Anderson. "Now, in the low flow, would be a more accurate testing time."

The Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District has received help and encouragement.

"We are grateful to the DNR officials up here, to the area leaders and those down in Spencer and Clay County who are in contact with Des Moines to lobby for us," Anderson said.

During the next two years of negotiations and, perhaps retesting, the sanitary district continues its efforts to maintain and upgrade over 100 miles of sewer lines, 64 lift stations and process on average 2 million gallons of water per day. All lift stations were upgraded with generators between 2011 and 2013 at a cost of $4.5 million. $5 million was spent on the Okoboji Harbor Project with Phase Three starting next spring, $4 million on Van Steenburg Estates and $2 million on telemetry upgrades including updated computer and warning systems in the lift stations and replacing all the old radio systems in the district.

"Improving water quality in the Iowa Great Lakes Region is what we do and we want to be able to do it correctly as well as cost effectively within the law," Anderson said.

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