Less corn. More cowpies.
April 1, 2009

The USDA thinks that farmers are going to plant 1% fewer acres of corn than they did last year. In Iowa, that looks like a decrease of about 100,000 acres (to city kids, that's about 156 square miles). Since corn and soybeans are they predominant commodities grown in Iowa and Nebraska, most of those acres not planted to corn will probably be used to raise soybeans. Demand for ethanol drove corn prices through the roof last year, since oil prices soared and took ethanol prices along with them throughout the first half of last year. Interestingly, though, even though gas prices now are about half what they were last year, farmers are still planning to plant the third-largest number of corn acres since 1949.

This will have a number of effects on the water environment. First, corn is heavily irrigated throughout Nebraska, and Nebraska farmers are planning to plant the same number of corn acres as last year. This means that competitive demand for water resources in the Cornhusker State will remain as high as ever. Meanwhile, with fewer corn acres being planted in Iowa and tougher restrictions being placed on the land application of manure to soybean fields, farmers in the Hawkeye State will have to look at new ways to dispose of their cattle waste, which may mean greater interest in products like lagoon liners to protect groundwater and streams, and perhaps in products like lagoon covers, which can capture methane from the cattle waste and turn it into valuable energy.

Revisions to Iowa water-quality regulations remain in limbo
April 2, 2009

The Iowa legislature is looking into a bill that could delay changes to the state's wastewater-treatment regulations. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been revising standards and ranking the protection levels required for the state's streams and lakes, but the costs that communities could face in upgrading their equipment are unclear. That's what has the legislature looking at putting the brakes on the new regulations.

Whenever the rules are finalized, we look forward to serving the communities involved with reliable and easy-to-maintain wastewater-treatment equipment and pumping systems. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

Revolving loan program for unsewered Iowa communities sails through Legislature
April 3, 2009

The Iowa General Assembly has unanimously approved a bill to create a revolving-loan program for unsewered communities. The program (if approved by the governor) would create a program for no-interest loans with terms of up to 40 years for small unsewered communities to install wastewater treatment systems. For most communities, these will most likely involve lagoons, which under the increasing standards of stringency for discharge into Iowa's waterways, will probably in many cases require baffle curtains and aeration. The Iowa Legislature is also considering a bill to establish stormwater utility districts, which are likely to become increasingly important as Federal regulations on stormwater impose greater burdens on local governments to act. In order to act, though, the communities will have to establish methods to tax, which the proposal appears to accommodate. The Iowa General Assembly also just passed a bill to loosen the pursestrings on state aid for communities seeking to upgrade their municipal wastewater treatment systems; required community matching funds have been replaced by a scoring mechanism that gives priority to projects using "alternative" wastewater treatment and to communities where sewer rates are high when compared to median household incomes.

Safe water is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars
April 6, 2009

Two overlapping reports on the state of the nation's water infrastructure have just been issued, one from the EPA and the other from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Together, they say that communities in the United States will need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two decades to replace old equipment in their water systems and to bring water-treatment plants into compliance with Federal law. The largest component of spending will actually involve distribution systems, including pipes and pumping stations, and elevated water tanks. But plant equipment will account for at least a fifth of the spending, too. And it may become clear in many locations that portable water-quality monitors have a role to play, too, offering valuable information about the effectiveness of the treatment at the plant and the level of water quality that can be maintained throughout the distribution system. The scale of the work to be done is enormous: The EPA is talking about the need for $334.8 billion dollars over the next 20 years; by comparison, the government estimates that a routine Space Shuttle mission costs about half a billion dollars. But while clean drinking water and municipal fire protection aren't even remotely as sexy as space flight, every dollar invested in clean water systems needs to be compared with the costs of what happens when you don't have adequate municipal water service -- events like the fires and cholera epidemics of the 1800s. Sadly, there are still parts of the world where the lack of safe drinking water (and safe disposal of sewage) are killing thousands of people right now.

Congress will take another shot at a tougher Clean Water Act
April 7, 2009

Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has reintroduced a bill in Congress which would extend the reach of the Clean Water Act. Previous versions of Sen. Feingold's proposal would have effectively placed almost all waters under Federal jurisdiction.

We expect that this proposal will be of considerable interest to the municipal wastewater sector, as well as to agricultural users of water and industrial water users. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

Computer threats to American infrastructure
April 8, 2009

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that US intelligence agencies are concerned about the significant number of intrusions into infrastructure-related computer networks by attackers from abroad. They are particularly suspicious of intrusions from China and Russia, but the sheer number, which include cyberattacks against electrical power systems, water, and sewage systems, have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix, and not all have even been identified. As more systems have come to integrate measuring equipment like toxic-gas sensors and flowmeters with operating equipment like water-control gates and pumps, the potential for problems has grown. However, many of our projects are still quite independent of external control -- our lift stations, for instance, are capable of sending signals to central control systems or using dialers to report on trouble, but they are also quite capable of running independently and autonomously, entirely off the communications grid.

Corps of Engineers considers additional flood protection for Des Moines
April 9, 2009

The US Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the flood-control systems for the southeastern part of Des Moines, as FEMA announces that flood maps for that part of the city may be revised. Given the epic flooding that hit Des Moines in 1993 and Cedar Rapids last year, Iowa's largest cities have significant reasons to consider what it would require to have the best stormwater protection systems available. In the far northeastern corner of the state, Allamakee County has completed a levee-upgrade project in response to last year's flooding disaster.

Fargo will get a second flood this spring
April 10, 2009

Forecasters at NOAA say that the Red River will have a second crest at Fargo this month, due to saturated soils and the onset of spring rains and warming. The flooding there should serve as a reminder to the rest of the country that springtime and summertime are the peak flooding seasons, so homeowners should be checking their sump pumps and those living near rivers and streams should consider additional pumping options for flood control.

Federal funding will cover $6.5 million in Cedar Rapids flood repairs
April 13, 2009

Last summer's massive flooding did enormous damage to the Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control Plant. The cost to repair those facilities was in the millions of dollars, but the city will be receiving $6.5 million from FEMA to aid in the cost of the repairs. Because wastewater treatment plants are generally located near rivers and streams on the outskirts of town, they are susceptible to flooding in two ways: First, they're generally at or near the lowest elevation in a community. Second, they're often located outside the perimeter of the flood defenses established for the rest of the community.

We can help you with temporary flood-protection dams and other equipment for stormwater control. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

EPA orders Fort Madison to change its stormwater treatment
April 14, 2009

The city of Fort Madison, Iowa, has a combined sewer system which integrates both its stormwater and wastewater sewers. As a result, the city occasionally encounters overflow situations during heavy rainstorms. The EPA has been cracking down on these combined sewer overflows, and Fort Madison in particular has been ordered to conduct a pilot system with disinfection for its combined-sewer overflows, at an estimated cost of $4.5 million. This is being done as an alternative to a complete separation of the city's sewers, which would cost four times as much. The city of Spencer, Iowa, recently agreed to a $32 million plan to conduct a full sewer separation over the next 20 years.

Complete separation projects for existing combined sewers can be extremely expensive; Spencer, for instance, is a town of 11,000 people, so the cost to complete the sewer separation will amount to almost $3,000 per resident. We can help communities with CSO mitigation products like bar screens and chlorination systems. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

A gas tax of a very different sort
April 15, 2009

The Iowa House is considering a bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Monday that would expand property-tax exemptions for equipment used to collect methane gas. The law currently limits the exemption to equipment used to capture methane gas from landfills, but the bill would get rid of that restriction. This appears to expand eligibility for the tax exemption to gas-collection systems over wastewater lagoons, among other potential sources.

The High Plains Aquifer is 9% smaller than 60 years ago
April 16, 2009

The High Plains Aquifer -- probably better-known as the Ogallala Aquifer -- is substantially smaller than it was in 1950, according to a new report from the US Geological Survey. The report says that most of the aquifer under Nebraska hasn't changed very much in the last 60 years, but in parts of Texas and Kansas, water levels in the aquifer have fallen by 150 feet or more. The aquifer is one of the main sources of water for both agricultural irrigation and municipal drinking water throughout the Great Plains, so its sustainability is especially important. It should also be noted that the need to pump water from the aquifer points to the very important relationship between energy and water -- as the water levels decrease, the amount of energy needed to pump the remaining water to the surface increases.

Cutting irrigation waste by measuring leaves
April 17, 2009

A branch of the USDA is working on a system to measure leaf temperature as a way to determine which parts of fields require irrigation and which parts don't need it. Irrigation consumes more water in Nebraska than all other categories of use combined, so its efficient use is especially important to the Cornhusker state. Irrigation takes many forms, including center-pivot, drip, and canal. While canal irrigation has generally been eclipsed by other types in Nebraska, some systems still use it and require canal gates to manage the water distribution.

Governor signs new law for Iowa wastewater funding
April 20, 2009

The Governor has signed a bill into law that changes how Iowa wastewater projects are funded. The bill changes the existing law by changing the priority ranking mechanism to give communities funding based on the cost of local sewer rates as a share of median household income. The bill caps grants at $500,000 and gives special preference to plans to use "alternative wastewater treatment technologies" that differ from activated-sludge and other mechanical wastewater treatment plants.

How much water is in that ethanol?
April 21, 2009

A study by researchers at the University of Minnesota concludes that the amount of water required to produce a single liter of ethanol varies by a factor of 400 times from one part of the country to another. Because Iowa and Ohio require virtually no irrigation to raise corn, a liter of ethanol from either state requires only five or six liters of water in the production process and irrigation combined. A liter of ethanol produced in California, by contrast, requires 400 times as much water -- 2138 liters of water after irrigation and production use for every liter of ethanol delivered. Ethanol production is very important in Iowa and Nebraska alike; Iowa produces twice as much ethanol as any other state, and Nebraska is also a major producer. But the difference in irrigation practices between the two states means that the average liter of Nebraska ethanol requires almost nine times as much water as the comparable liter of ethanol from Iowa.

Water well permits become a rarer commodity
April 22, 2009

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman has signed LB483 into law, which makes it harder to get water well permits in areas where rivers are approaching their maximum use. The issue came to the forefront because the Lower Platte River basin went back and forth between a "fully appropriated" and less than fully appropriated over the last four or five months. The new law creates some new discretion for the local authorities to halt further well permits from being issued.

We can help you with municipal water treatment and some agricultural water sytems. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

The paradox of flood preparedness
April 23, 2009

The floods in Fargo, North Dakota, this spring were record-breaking, and much of the rest of the country probably doesn't even realize that things are only slowly getting back to normal. But even as the floodwaters were still on the rise, it became apparent that Fargo might've been less prepared for the flooding of 2009 because it attracted less attention in the floods of 1997 than Grand Forks, which was hit badly. Fargo officials have brought a proposal for a special sales-tax initiative up for a public vote later this summer to help cover the $200 million cost of permanent flood-control measures in the area. Fargo officials rightly recognize that the public tends to have an extremely short memory for the need for disaster-preparation projects. Flood-control measures and civil-defense sirens can be expensive to install and maintain, but the value is generally left unrecognized until disasters actually strike. So while the public may resent paying for some projects when there's no imminent threat, when an investment saves lives -- like the tornado siren installed just two weeks before the F5 tornado in Parkersburg, Iowa -- those who showed the foresight to take action before the need became imminent ought to be thanked.

We can help you with flood-protection equipment like pump stations, flood-control gates, and portable dams. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

We've only chlorinated our water for a hundred years
April 24, 2009

It's easy to imagine that drinking water in a "civilized" country like the United States has always been safe. But the truth is that municipal water disinfection using chlorine has only been in practice for about a hundred years. In fact, it only reached some major communities in the 1920s and took much longer to reach smaller communities. Today, we use remote water-quality monitoring panels and measure the effectiveness of chlorine at the point of dosing using low-cost, reliable digital instruments. But after 100 years, most American drinking water, whether treated from farm wells or treated in large municipal plants, is still dosed with some form of chlorine to kill pathogens. And the effective elimination of typhoid in the United States is the proof that chlorine disinfection works.

Not the kind of front-page coverage the water industry wants
April 27, 2009

The Associated Press is distributing a story highlighting increased concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the water treated and returned to the environment by municipal wastewater treatment plants serving pharmaceutical factories. The story naturally gets abbreviated by headline-writers into "Factories dumping drugs into sewage" on MSNBC and "Studies find factories release pharmaceuticals" in the Kansas City Star. Unfortunately, though, short headlines on stories like this tend to give the public the impression that the nation's water professionals are either careless or deliberately polluting the water. It would be difficult to land farther from the truth. Many communities face a dual problem: First, modern wastewater treatment depends mainly upon biological processes like aeration and anaerobic digestion to clear the water and turn organic waste into safe byproducts. Those biological processes are simply not capable in most cases of removing complex pollutants from the water, any more than using a metal detector would be any good at locating a plastic bucket. But the second problem is that municipalities are perpetually fighting an uphill battle to set water and wastewater-treatment rates at an appropriate level to fund the treatment they need. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the nation will need $255 billion in wastewater infrastructure improvements over the next five years, but that we're only on track to fund about half of that amount. Yet, even though water and sewer fees are almost negligible as a component of most household budgets, raising rates is one of the most difficult political moves public officials can try to make, because of the widespread (but mistaken) perception that water is "free". Correcting that perception will take a long time, and something more than the occasional frightening story about drugs in the water.

EPA plans a survey on emerging contaminants
April 28, 2009

The EPA is preparing to issue a survey that would ask for information on the treated wastewater leaving municipal plants upstream of drinking-water plants using the same rivers and streams. The proposal states:
Improvements in analytical chemistry instrumentation have allowed scientists to detect trace amounts of chemicals that are commonly used in homes in the environment. These so-called "emerging contaminants" are chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, detergents and even endogenous hormones, which are either excreted from or washed off the body, and enter the wastewater treatment system.
Water-quality monitoring is presently done for a variety of parameters, including residual chlorine and turbidity, but if further standards are added as a result of this and/or other surveys, monitoring requirements could become complex.

Columbus faces a hefty price tag for new levees
April 29, 2009

FEMA has instructed Columbus, Nebraska, to raise its levees by a foot or more throughout the city in order to comply with a standard that would protect the city against a 100-year flood. The city will need to spend about $2 million to get the levee improvements, but the result should save about that much annually in higher flood-insurance premiums.

We can help you with water-control gates, geotextiles, and pumping stations, in addition to many other products for levee improvements and flood control. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

Senate proposal: $1.8 billion for sewer separation
April 30, 2009

Senators Frank Lautenberg and George Voinovich have proposed the "Water Quality Investment Act" to offer Federal funding to support the need to upgrade overflowing sewer systems. Much of the overflow problem comes from combined sewer systems, which transport wastewater from homes and businesses (sanitary sewage) in the same channels as stormwater runoff from streets and parking lots. The amount of water captured by stormwater systems in a moderate to heavy rainfall can exceed by several times over the amount of water that's normally produced by sanitary purposes, overwhelming municipal wastewater treatment plants and causing them to discharge the excess flows directly into rivers and streams. Ordinarily, the sanitary waste in those overflows is so diluted by the stormwater that it's considered mostly safe -- but it nonetheless represents a discharge of untreated wastewater into the natural environment. Heavy-rain events are not uncommon in our part of the country: An April storm dropped 5 to 7 inches of rain on much of the state of Iowa.

We can help you with a variety of sewer-separation products, including gates, pumps, water-quality monitors, and samplers. Please feel free to contact us with your questions.

Past water and wastewater news updates

last revised April 2009