Can Infrastructure Spending Help Iowa’s Polluted Rivers?

Can Infrastructure Spending Help Iowa’s Polluted Rivers?

The display department for the plans.  If you've read Douglas Adams, you'll appreciate the joke.

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

 

– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

I was reminded of this scene after spending a long day cross-referencing the Raccoon River TMDL (a pollution budget for nitrate and E. coli) with permits and monitoring data for wastewater treatment plants.  In this case, I suspected that polluters were getting away with something, but I’ve had just as much trouble finding information when I wanted to document a success story.

Effluent limits for nitrogen are not strict.  Wastewater treatment plants and meatpacking plants in the Raccoon River watershed routinely discharge treated wastewater with nitrate 4-6x the drinking water standard.  Why is this allowed?  The 2008 Raccoon River TMDL capped pollution from point sources at the existing level, rather than calling for reductions.  Due to limited data, the wasteload allocations were an over-estimate, assuming maximum flow and no removal during treatment. 

Water Treatment

That’s all above board, but someone else at the DNR went a step further.  Wasteload allocations in the TMDL were further inflated by a factor of two or three to arrive at effluent limits in the permits, using a procedure justified in an obscure interdepartmental memo.  The limits are expressed as total Kjeldahl nitrogen, even though the authors of the TMDL made it clear that other forms of nitrogen are readily converted to nitrate during treatment and in the river.   In short, the limits in the permit allow more nitrogen to be discharged than normally comes in with the raw sewage!

For example:

  • The Storm Lake sewage treatment plant has an effluent limit of 2,052 lbs/day total Kjeldahl nitrogen (30-day avg).  Total Kjeldahl nitrogen in the raw sewage is around 1000 lbs/day.
  • The Tyson meatpacking plant in Storm Lake has an effluent limit of 6,194 lbs/day total Kjeldahl nitrogen (30-day avg).  Total Kjeldahl nitrogen in the raw influent is around 4,000 lbs/day.
  • I also checked a permit affected by the (now withdrawn) Cedar River TMDL.  Same story.  The Cedar Falls sewage treatment plant has an effluent limit of 1,303 lbs/day total nitrogen (30-day avg).  Average total nitrogen in the raw sewage is between 1000-1500 lbs/day.
  • Confused about the units?  That may be deliberate.  Total Kjeldahl nitrogen includes ammonia and nitrogen in organic matter.  Nitrogen in raw sewage is mostly in these forms, which need to converted to nitrate or removed with the sludge in order to meet other limits and avoid killing fish.  Nitrogen in treated effluent is mostly in the form of nitrate.  At the Tyson plant, the effluent leaving the plant has around 78 mg/L nitrate, versus 4 mg/L TKN, but figuring that out required several calculations.  At smaller plants, the data to calculate nitrate pollution isn’t even collected.

As part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, large point source polluters are supposed to evaluate the feasibility of reducing nitrate to 10 mg/L, and phosphorus to 1 mg/L.  Tyson did a feasibility study for phosphorus removal, and is now adding new treatment to its Storm Lake plant.  However, it is not required to evaluate or implement further nitrogen reduction, “because it is already subject to a technology-based limit from the ELG.”  This federal Effluent Limitation Guideline was challenged in court by environmental groups this year, and is now being revised by the EPA.  It allows meatpacking plants to discharge a daily maximum of 194 mg/L total nitrogen!

Fortunately, all this creative permitting has little impact on the cost and safety of drinking water in the Des Moines metro.  According to research in the TMDL, point sources only account for about 10% of the nitrogen load, on days when nitrate in the Raccoon River exceeds the drinking water standard.  However, the figure is much higher (30%) for the North Raccoon River.  I started looking at permits and effluent monitoring because I was trying to explain some unusual data from nitrate sensors, brought to my attention by friends with the Raccoon River Watershed Association.  During a fall with very little rain (less than 0.04 inches in November at Storm Lake), nitrate in the North Raccoon River near Sac City remained very high (8 to 11 mg/L).  The two largest point sources upstream of that site can easily account for half the nitrogen load during that period.

Figure from Raccoon River TMDL

I was glad to be able to solve a mystery, and hope that this investigation can lead to some tools and teaching materials to help others identify when and where point sources could be influencing rivers.   The load-duration curves in the 200-page Raccoon River TMDL are very good, but some people might benefit from something simpler, like this table.  In general, the bigger the facility, the smaller the river, and the drier the weather, the more point sources of pollution can influence water quality, and the more wastewater treatment projects can make a difference. 

Spreadsheet for estimating impact of wastewater.

I made this table to estimate how biological nutrient removal in Nevada and Oskaloosa (about 1 MGD each) could improve water quality in the South Skunk River (about 1000 cfs on average near Oskaloosa, but there could be greater benefit in tributaries, or when rivers are lower).

Dan Haug standing by Raccoon River

In this work, I’m supported by partners around the state and a grant from the Water Foundation.  The project (Movement Infrastructure for Clean Water in Iowa) focuses on building connections and shared tools around water monitoring, and will continue through this spring and summer.  The funders’ interest is in helping the environmental movement make the most of the “once-in-generation opportunity” presented by the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.  This fiscal year, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is adding $28 million to Iowa’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans to communities to replace aging sewer systems and treatment plants.  Can that infrastructure spending help Iowa’s polluted rivers?  We won’t know for sure without better use of water quality data, and greater transparency in state government.

Lincoln Highway – A Poem by Amelia Kibbie

Lincoln Highway – A Poem by Amelia Kibbie

Hover then click the arrows to move from one verse to the next (best seen on desktop).

Lincoln Highway

by Amelia Kibbie

It’s hard to imagine now

as our modern mobiles whisper past

that along this road

horses and herds of cattle passed

and the air was splattered

with the jangled rattle of Model A’s and T’s

the clattered patter of Tin Lizzies.

New York, New York

1914 Times Square

This city, our homegrown gotham

the gateway to America

and the road started there or ended — beginnings and endings

are muddled, as is our mixed memory
and truth-stained history.

Named for Lincoln

who put pen to paper and called for freedom

freedom, the siren song of the automobile

“Life is a Highway”

“Every Day is a Winding Road”

“Bacon and eggs to fix…”

Never mind that the children of those he freed

had to use the Green Book to

keep them safe as they traversed this path

and many others.

Was that freedom?

Nostalgia is not memory

but from sea to shining sea,

follow the hood ornament

until you’ve reached the terminus

the Golden Gate, so named

by a pathfinder-colonizer

All that’s left is the open ocean.

Think of this place

where we stand

as a bead strung on a necklace

that adorns the decolletage of our country

some jewels bigger or more intricate than others

but hanging on the same chain

and just as precious.

Traveled to this day,

the roads were the pride of ancient Rome

a piece of history, yes

but to us

this road leads home.

About the author :

Amelia Kibbie is an author, poet, and lifelong educator. Her debut novel Legendary was published in 2019 by Running Wild Press. Amelia’s short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including the pro-human sci-fi collection Humans Wanted, We Cryptids, Enter the Rebirth, and My American Nightmare: Women in Horror. The literary journals Saw Palm, Quantum Fairy Tales, Wizards in Space, and Intellectual Refuge have featured her work. Her next project is to renovate the turn-of-the-century church she just purchased into a home with the help of her husband, daughter, and four cats. She served on the Lisbon Historic Preservation Commission and as Mt. Vernon/Lisbon Poet Laureate in 2020. Her most recent publication is a book of poems paired with and inspired by the photography of Robert Campagna, a local photographer who was once her teacher. Final Elegance is available by special order — email ameliamk1983@gmail.com for details or visit ameliakibbie.com.

Amelia Kibbie
Sources of Financial Assistance for Preserving Historical Buildings

Sources of Financial Assistance for Preserving Historical Buildings

Preston's Station Historic District along the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway in Belle Plaine, Iowa.

Many property owners are eager to find financial assistance for rehabilitating, preserving, or maintaining their structures, whether it is for a modest private residence or a large commercial building. Tax incentives may be available at the federal, state, or local level to support historically sensitive work on recognized historic properties. Finding the right opportunity for your project can be complicated, but your local city government or historic preservation commission may help advise you. Because tax codes change frequently, consultation with a qualified tax attorney, accountant, or the Internal Revenue Service is recommended.

Here are some sources of financial assistance to consider :

GRANTS

Historical Resource Development Program (HRDP): This competitive grant program can be used to fund the rehabilitation of buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Grants are made annually for up to $50,000. Details can be found at Historical Resource Development Program | IDCA (iowa.gov).

TAX CREDITS

State Historic Tax Credit:  Property owners can get credit for up to 25% of their qualified rehabilitation costs (basically anything attached to the building; however, site work does not qualify). The building must be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places but does not actually have to be listed. Qualifying properties include private residences, barns, commercial properties, and properties owned by nonprofits, including houses of worship. The project must be a substantial rehabilitation, which is defined based on a formula that involves comparing the adjusted basis of the property to the cost of the qualified rehabilitation expenditures.

Maple Grove Schoolhouse along the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway in Marengo, Iowa.
The Lincoln Hotel in Lowden, Iowa as it stands today.

The formula is different depending on whether the building is commercial or noncommercial. The rehabilitation work must be done according to guidelines that are used in historic preservation work across the country and are the reference point for tax credit and grant programs in addition to being best practices. These are called the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Credits may be fully refundable and are transferable if sold to a new owner. You can find more information about the state tax credit at Historic Preservation Tax Credit | Iowa Economic Development Authority (iowaeda.com)

Federal Historic Tax Credit: Property owners can get credit for up to 20% of qualified rehabilitation costs. This credit is intended for depreciable, income-producing properties. Many of the same requirements for the state tax credit program apply to the federal credit, thus the groundwork laid for one can be reused for the other. The building must be listed on the National Register of Historic Places or be eligible for listing (the property must be listed within 30 months after taking the credit). Credit is not refundable, but it can be carried forward and used for over 20 years. The rehabilitation work must follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

When used together with the state credit, the federal historic tax credit can equal a total credit of 45% of the rehabilitation costs. Public Law No: 115-97 made a change stating that the 20 percent credit can be claimed so that those who qualify for the tax credit would receive 4 percent per year for five years rather than 20 percent for one year. For more information, visit National Park Service Historic Property Tax Incentives.

Historic building along the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway in Jefferson, Iowa.

GUIDELINES for REHABILITATION

If you would like to know more about the guidelines for the treatment of historic buildings, please see the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards on the Treatment of Historic Properties of the National Park Service.

ADDITIONAL USEFUL LINKS

A source of practical information is the National Park Service’s technical preservation services publications Technical Preservation Services Publications – Technical Preservation Services (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)

Preservation Briefs can be a helpful starting place for specific building issues: Preservation Briefs – Technical Preservation Services (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)

 

Appreciation for this information goes to Allison Archambo, Certified Local Government Coordinator, State Historic Preservation Office of Iowa, and Michael M. Belding, State Historic Preservation Office of Nebraska.

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Director Leaves Behind a Dynamic Tenure of Leadership

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Director Leaves Behind a Dynamic Tenure of Leadership

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Executive Director Penny Brown Huber

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Executive Director Penny Brown Huber has established a culture of teamwork, insight, and encouragement for over a decade. “Her leadership as our executive director has helped create a uniquely talented staff who are working together in our important conservation work,” boasts board chair Reed Riskedahl. Huber has announced she will step down from her position as director on December 15, 2023. The announcement was met with a sense of loss among staff, the board of directors, our partners, and many of those we serve as an organization, but we are grateful for her leadership and wish her the best in her new endeavors. We have all benefited from her encouragement, guidance, and compassion. Thank you, Penny, for the thirteen incredible years of dedicated service to Prairie Rivers of Iowa!

I recently interviewed Huber about her tenure at Prairie Rivers. Here is what she had to say:

What drew you to accept the Prairie Rivers of Iowa executive director position? Did you have a particular passion that influenced your decision?

“I was aware of the excellent work the RC&Ds were doing around the state and respected what Prairie Rivers of Iowa was accomplishing. My passion for helping people and educating them on natural resources led me to want to accept the executive director position.”

What are two to three accomplishments accomplished during your tenure that you are the proudest of?

  • “Continuing to build quality programs supported by science and employing talented and committed people to lead the way.”
  • “Expanding the Prairie Rivers of Iowa brand to serve more people and Iowa’s natural and cultural resources.”

How do you feel your influence and management style have enabled the staff and board members to work at their best? 

“Part of serving as an effective administrator is to work with our people where they are at in building their programs by supporting what they know and helping to move their projects, ideas, and opportunities forward. We cannot do our work alone, so looking for partners and supporters and building effective teams is ultimately how we get things done.”

What kind of shape is the work at Prairie Rivers of Iowa in compared to when you started? 

“The organization has grown a lot both in capacity and resources. In the beginning, it was just our Office Manager Carman Rosburg, and me in the office working with the Board of Directors to lay out a strategic plan to move the organization forward. At that time, there was a group of projects that were not related to each other. Today, we have programs with extremely talented and smart people steering the way on improving water quality, pollinator conservation, and building a vibrant byway program for the Lincoln Highway National Heritage and Iowa Valley Scenic Byways.”

What are the most critical tasks or goals you see for Prairie Rivers as the organization moves forward? 

Building program capacity to address local and statewide projects will open up opportunities for more partners, sponsors, and positive change. Bridging the educational efforts so that citizens become enthusiastic learners and supporters is a pathway to solving the very challenging problems in Iowa.

What would it be if you had to give one piece of advice to your replacement?

Make sure there is time to do strategic thinking both for the overall organization and with the program leaders. Enjoy communicating with a variety of people to really develop a sound understanding of problems and solutions. Creating positive change is about taking one step at a time and, after a period of time, looking back and seeing how you made a difference.

When commenting on moving forward as an organization, Riskedahl adds, “The partnerships that exist throughout Iowa with Prairie Rivers have flourished, and a bevy of supporters continue to give of their time and resources to keep this work progressing.”

“We greatly value the work that Penny has done and want to assure everyone that the Prairie Rivers of Iowa Board of Directors is working diligently to find a new Executive Director to continue this important work,” Riskedahl concludes.

A Year of Pollinator Progress!

A Year of Pollinator Progress!

With your help, Prairie Rivers of Iowa accomplished many pollinator goals in 2023! From mobilizing a city-wide plan to improve the plight of pollinators to receiving a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, we have been working hard to educate the public and serve our community! Besides creating over 30 educational social media posts, providing in-person presentations, and educating at events such as the City of Ames EcoFair, this program has achieved several significant milestones this year:

Mobilizing the Ames Pollinator Plan

This year, we brought the Ames Pollinator Plan to life! Prairie Rivers led the formation of small groups and started projects for pollinators in Ames! Some interesting projects include drafting educational messages about how to support Ames butterflies, understanding how city policy can help residents create more pollinator-friendly yards, and identifying research methods to determine “who”, in terms of pollinators, live right here in Ames! Understanding which pollinators are present will allow us to appreciate and understand the immediate needs of pollinators in Ames. Read our plan that started it all here!

Monarch Magic!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa hosted its first monarch tagging event this year, “Monarch Magic!”. This event pulled many dedicated partner organizations together to create a fun-filled educational event! We had attendees ranging from infants to senior citizens, with over 95 families and groups attending! Together, we tagged 146 monarch butterflies to help scientists track the monarch migration route, their migration timing, and other data to understand how these magnificent butterflies survive one of the most arduous migrations in the animal kingdom. Read more about this event and our incredible partners and sponsors here!

NFWF Grant to help Monarchs and Women!

Most of Iowa’s land is in agriculture (over 85% as of 2021). This fact alone makes it imperative to have farms that mitigate harm and actually benefit Iowa’s natural resources! To achieve this, Prairie Rivers has created a new project, which was recently awarded a grant by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Our project will plant more monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat on farms by reaching out to all farmers but with a particular focus on women landowners and producers. Women landowners and farmers have historically been left out of many beneficial farm and conservation programs due to dated outreach efforts and cultural assumptions. They are an under-utilized group that is very likely to install acres into conservation practices, especially after learning more about pollinator decline! To provide higher-quality outreach and services to these women, we are partnering with Story County Conservation, Boone and Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Story County Water Monitoring Planning Team, local grain farmer Jim Richardson, and agricultural education expert Dr. Jean Eells. With this team, we will construct messages that are inclusive and compelling to all farmers and landowners, including women, create field days of learning specifically for women, and raise women’s awareness of opportunities for cost shares and conservation programs. We hope this project will not only get more pollinator habitat on the ground, but that it will also create peer and mentor networks for women in agriculture and also set up an effective and sustainable communication system between women and the NRCS (National Resource Conservation Services). Our project will focus on reaching farmers and implementing conservation practices within Story, Boone, and Hamilton counties.

THANK YOU again for supporting Prairie Rivers of Iowa and our pollinator program! Together, we are creating a lasting, positive impact for the people and pollinators in Iowa!

To invest in a positive Iowa future, click here!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Has Had a Busy and Productive 2023

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Has Had a Busy and Productive 2023

Hello and Happy 2023,

Prairie Rivers of Iowa has had a busy and productive 2023 in Iowa, working on a variety of important initiatives related to creating a healthier natural environment and preserving the rich cultural heritage of Iowa.   As we end this year, we have touched kids, families, landowners, historic homeowners and business owners, communities, natural resource professionals, like-minded not-for-profits and oversaw a national prairie conference in Iowa.

Here’s a summary of some of the key accomplishments and initiatives this year:

EDUCATIONAL VIDEO SERIES – We created a weekly video series for YouTube and Instagram The Clean Water Act: 50 Years, 50 Facts. We produced 45 short videos filmed at dozens of locations (including knee deep in a marsh) and featuring 5 music parodies.  The educational videos covered various aspects of water conservation, law and policy.

Water Testing Ioway Creek Near Stratford in Hamitlon County

MONTHLY STREAM MONITORINGConducted monthly monitoring of at least 15 streams, providing updates in the Prairie Rivers monthly newsletter.  Additionally, coordinated volunteer “snapshots” with neighboring counties and supported school groups interested in water monitoring. Additionally, we published a 65-page report analyzing water quality data, including a novel way of looking at the data.

SECURED A NATIONAL FOUNDATION GRANT – This grant assists us in building a network for interpreting water quality monitoring data.  Seven partners joined Prairie Rivers to focus at sharing best practices, looking for tools to monitor E. coli in our streams, providing a monthly opportunity to express their concerns and planning for an Iowa Water Summit in 2024.

Ioway Creek Cleanup

TWO TRASH CLEANUPS — (1) May 2023 — Cleaned Ioway Creek by canoe, S. Grand to S. 16th St (Ames), 40 participants.  The trash collected weighed 3,020 pounds and included 20 tires and three rims. Partners included: Story County Conservation, Skunk River Paddlers, the City of Ames, Outdoor Alliance of Story County.  (2) August 14, 2023 – Cleaned a tributary of Ioway Creek in Stuart Smith Park (Ames), on foot, nine volunteers, 350 pounds of trash removed.  Partners included Iowa Rivers Revival, Green Iowa AmeriCorps and the City of Ames.

POLLINATOR CONSERVATION Launched a 10-year plan involving over 40 persons serving on a committee to support pollinator conservation.  This plan is aimed at conserving pollinators and their habitats, which are crucial for the environment.  You can see the plan at www.prrcd.org.

Monarch Magic Family Fun Event on September 9th, 2023

MONARCH MAGIC Held the first Monarch tagging event in September, where over 300 kids, their families, and others learned about pollinators and tagged 146 Monarchs.  We had 10 sponsors and partners at Ada Hayden Heritage Park and plan to do it again in 2024.

HISTORIC RESOURCE PRESERVATIONReceived a grant from Iowa Cultural Affairs and successfully surveyed 319 historic listings on the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway.  In 2024, we will present the findings to elected officials and other interested persons in the 43 communities along the Byway to inform and develop a plan for the restoration and preservation of these important Iowa heritage properties.

BYWAY COORDINATOR AND PROJECTS – Hired a new Byway Coordinator, Jeanie Hau, who is actively working to support our Byway projects.  Prairie Rivers signed a new contract with the Iowa DOT to support work on the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway extending our efforts to preserve Iowa’s heritage.  This Byway begins on Highway 30, Montour turnoff, and travels through the Amana Colonies for a total of 77 miles.

TRAVELING EXHIBITThe Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway traveling exhibit called The Promise Road:  How the Lincoln Highway Changed America has been displayed at various locations, allowing visitors to learn about the rich history of this historic road.  It’s available for display in museums, libraries, and other community spaces.  So far the exhibit has traveled to Jefferson, Grand Junction, State Center, Nevada, Linn County Historical Society: The History Center, Cedar Rapids History Museum, Nevada Library, Marion Public Library, Carroll Public Library, Harrison County Welcome Center, and currently at the Council Bluffs Public Library.

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Traveling Exhibit

We cannot do this work without your support!

Today, we are asking you as a supporter to make an end-of-year gift of $50.00 to Prairie Rivers of Iowa.  Your support shows us to keep up the good work!   You can make a gift here online or by going to our donation page for additional options. We know that as good stewards of the land, you see how important this work is today.

It is so important for a not-for-profit to receive gifts from individuals. Hearing from you encourages and supports our very difficult work in support of the natural and cultural resources in Iowa.
Thank you!

Board of Directors
Reed Riskedahl, President
Mark Rasmussen, Treasurer
Doug Cooper, Secretary
Erv Klaas
Bob Ausberger
Chuck Stewart
Rick Dietz
Jim Richardson
Christopher Barber

Staff
Mike Kellner, Marketing and Public Relations
Dan Haug, Water Quality Specialist
Jessica Butters, Pollinator Conservation Specialist
Jeanie Hau, Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway & Iowa Valley Scenic Byway Coordinator
Carman Rosburg, Office Manager
Daniel Huber, Technology
Shellie Orngard, Historic Properties Consultant

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