City hears report mandating sewer plant upgrades

The City of Monticello’s current sewer plant will need to be upgraded to meet current EPA and DNR regulations to reduce nitrates and phosphorus being discharged into waterways. The estimated cost $6 million, which means sewer rates would likely go up. (Photo by Pete Temple)
Project could likely result in sewer rate increases
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     The Monticello City Council heard a report from the city engineers with Snyder & Associates regarding the future needs of the city’s sewer plant and wastewater treatment facility. These EPA and DNR-mandated changes might end up costing city residents in terms of an increase in city sewer rates.

     During the March 19 city council meeting, Patrick Schwickerath and Lindsey Beaman with Snyder gave a presentation to the council, highlighting some changes that need to occur in the near future.

     The city’s sewer plant is currently classified as a trickling filter plant. The last time any upgrades took place at the facility was in 2000. Beaman said this type of plant “does not bode well for nutrient reduction.”

     The Iowa DNR is mandating regulations to keep up with the state’s NRS (Nutrient Reduction Strategy), which calls for the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into national waterways. These mandates are tied to sewer facilities with a capacity of 1 million gallons.

     “You’re design capacity exceeds 1 million gallons,” said Beaman. “That pits you into the nutrient reduction category.” However, though the city’s plant is designed for that capacity, on average, the discharge is less than 1 million. “But you meet the criteria enough that I would doubt you’d able to scale back your plant,” suggested Beaman.

     Monticello is one of 100 cities across the state facing these new rules, requirements that won’t go away any time soon.

     The last time the city’s wastewater plant permit through the DNR was renewed was in 2016. Schwickerath said at that time, there were new rules on the horizon.

     In October of this year, the city must submit a plan to the DNR outlining how it plans to implement those new nutrient reduction regulations and when. Beaman said the city could simply say it cannot afford to implement any changes right now, but explain how it plans to recoup the funds to do so in the future.

     “The DNR is going to revisit this every five years,” she warned.

     Cities that have upgraded their wastewater plants have spent anywhere from $5 million to $6 million. Schwickerath said it highly likely Monticello’s would also be in the ballpark.

     “We might be around that $6 million range,” he said.

     Anamosa, whose improvements cost $5 million, saw a $20 per month increase to resident’s sewer bills.

     “It’s probably going to be more than $20 a month by the time everything is built,” added Schwickerath.

     He suggested the city start by increasing sewer bills by $5 a year to build a facilities fund for the next 10 years.

     “Probably in the next five years,” said City Administrator Doug Herman, “we’re looking at a significant upgrade.” He said Anamosa residents were shocked the first time they saw their sewer bills had increased.

     “No one wants to do that,” said Council member Johnny Russ, noting that it may be the only way to build a fund for the upgrade project.

     “On the positive side, our sewer rates have, in a way, gone down,” noted Herman. “They used to be 160 percent of water. We lowered them to 150 percent some years ago and haven’t been raising them regularly.”

     Council member Tom Yeoman asked what an increase of $5 a month would generate. Herman noted roughly $114,000 a year, or $1 million in 10 years. Still under the $6 million estimate.

     So what does need to be done to Monticello’s sewer plant to bring it into code? Beaman said an activated sludge plant in deal, a plant that has an aeration process.

     “Those kinds of plants (activated sludge plants) they have more options. Trickling filters are very limited,” she explained in terms of filtering the nitrogen and phosphorus.

     Schwickerath said an activated sludge plant also brings in an additional line of service. So if one line is compromised and goes down, there’s an additional line for treatment.

     He said that as develop increases throughout the city, the DNR might reject permits, not allowing the city to extend sewer lines out to these developments.

     While the city might be able to hold off another five years, Beaman said construction costs would continue to rise. “Ultimately, as a city, you do have to meet the goal to have a plan in place by October.” She said an activated sludge plant seems to be the most cost effective and beneficial system in place right now.

     “Unless someone really objects, we need to start looking at building a fund,” urged Yeoman.

     Beaman said something to think about is whether the current plant is adequate for flood protection. She said upgrades could also address that as well.

     “If there is going to be a proactive increase to absorb this,” said Mayor Brian Wolken, “if we did a $5 a month increase in a year, you’re still falling behind. And you’re still going to have to have a $20 increase to actually do the construction.”

     Council member Dave Goedken agreed. “Doing something minimal just keeps up with inflation. You’re not gaining anything. People need to understand what we need to do, what we need to pay for. I think we’d be better off to just do $20 proactively.”

     The council will continue to discuss this matter at its next council meeting, Monday April 2.



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