Water quality in the South Skunk River is still poor but has gotten better in the last five years. One reason for improvement is a new disinfection system at the Ames wastewater treatment plant.

Dr. Chris Jones recently shared a water quality index he developed for Iowa rivers, combining five important water quality metrics. Of the 45 sites in the Iowa DNR’s ambient monitoring network, the South Skunk River near Cambridge scored “poor” and ranked 34th overall. This site also has the 3rd highest phosphorus and the 5th highest E. coli levels.

A follow-up article looked whether the current (2016-2020) water quality index has changed from previous decades. Most rivers have stayed the same or gotten worse, but the South Skunk had a better score. Three of the metrics (total phosphorus, total nitrogen, and E. coli bacteria) improved, while one (turbidity, a measure of sediment in the water) got worse.

Phosphorus and muddy water usually go together, so this odd pattern demanded some explanation. I did my own analysis of the data, curious if the changes were happening under drier conditions (when wastewater has a bigger influence), wetter conditions (when agricultural runoff has a bigger influence) or both.

See last week’s post for an explanation of the flow categories I’m using. I use a lot of boxplots, which show both the central tendency and the spread of the data. The lower end, middle, and upper ends of the box are the 25th, 50th (median) and 75th percentiles. The “whiskers” show the maximum and minimum, unless they’re really far out there, in which case the “outliers” represented by dots. Water quality data never fits a bell curve, so lopsided boxes and outliers are to be expected.

It turns out that the river didn’t get any muddier (it got less muddy) when you compare wet conditions to wet conditions and mid-range conditions to mid-range conditions.

It’s just that the past five years were a little wetter and so a larger share (43% vs 29%) of the samples were collected during wet conditions when the river was moving swiftly and carrying more sediment. A smaller share (25% vs 42%) of the samples were collected during dry and low-flow conditions when the water is usually clear. That made the average sediment concentration increase.

Weather also can explain trends in phosphorus. In the past five years, a smaller share of the samples were collected during dry and low-flow conditions when phosphorus concentrations are especially high. That made the average phosphorus concentration decrease.

Why is phosphorus so high when it’s dry? The monitoring site in question is just below the outfall of Ames Water Pollution Control Facility on 280th St, about 4 miles north of Cambridge. This facility discharges over 6 million gallons a day of treated wastewater. When conditions are dry, the effluent is less diluted, and so phosphorus in the stream approaches phosphorus levels in the effluent (which averages 3.8 mg/L), as shown in the graph below. This year we’ve also monitored West Indian Creek below the Nevada wastewater treatment plant and have seen the same pattern.

Wastewater treatment plants are regulated to minimize the impact on receiving waters and the Ames WPC Facility has one of the best compliance records in the nation. However, while the treatment process is very good at removing ammonia, solids, and oxygen-depleting substances, the process is not that effective for removing nutrients.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not voluntary for wastewater treatment plants. The Ames Water and Pollution Control Department commissioned a feasibility study as a condition of its permit, which determined that the facility could achieve a 67% reduction in total nitrogen and a 75% reduction in total phosphorus by replacing its trickling filters with an activated sludge treatment system. This new system will be phased in as the filters reach the end of their useful life (starting in 2027) and will cost $39.6 million.

In the last five years we have not seen any reduction in phosphorus during dry and low-flow conditions when wastewater treatment systems have the biggest influence. However, there was a reduction in phosphorus* under mid-range and high flow conditions! This is really interesting–I’ll have to look at some other data sets to see whether it holds up and whether we can link it to conservation practices in the watershed.

For E. coli, we see improvement across all conditions, with the largest improvement during low-flow conditions* when wastewater has the biggest influence.

The effluent discharged to the river has gotten a lot cleaner since the Ames Water Pollution Control Facility built $2 million disinfection system using ultra-violet (UV) light. The system was completed in March of 2015. During the recreational season (March 15-Nov 15), treated effluent passes through two banks of lights that kill microbes. Prior to this, some E. coli and pathogens could make it through the system and end up in the river. Chlorination, a good solution for disinfecting drinking water and swimming pools, is not ideal for wastewater because it can harm fish.

Kris Evans, an environmental engineer for the City of Ames and the project manager, said this about the system:

“By using UV we continue to be “chemical free” for treatment of the wastewater and it’s much safer for staff since they don’t have to chlorinate and dechlorinate. When flow is low at the plant, we are able to lower the intensity of the bulbs to save energy and still meet permit limits; as flow increases so does the UV light intensity. The City started design of the UV system before it was mandated in a permit; we knew it was coming, but wanted to be proactive in the treatment of water, making it safer for those who recreated in the river. It was also the first project the department funded through an State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan.”

We still see high E. coli levels in other streams that receive effluent, but smaller wastewater treatment systems are also making the switch to comply with new permit requirements. In Story County, Gilbert added a UV disinfection system in 2019, the Squaw Valley HOA completed theirs in 2020, and Nevada will build a new wastewater treatment plant in 2022 that includes UV disinfection.

* I’ve written before about the challenges of detecting water quality trends. I’m pleased to report that two of the trends discussed here (a reduction in phosphorus at mid-range flow conditions, and a reduction in E. coli in dry and low-flow conditions) were statistically significant at 90% confidence level, using a test of the difference between medians. The approach employed here (sorting by flow conditions) may be a good way to control for weather and reach more reliable conclusions. It’s exciting to have some good news that holds up to further analysis!