Some small towns find themselves 'upside down' on required infrastructure improvements

TIPTON — During her 99-county tour, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst fielded concerns from Tipton residents about state and federal regulations on the city’s aging wastewater system.

Gathered around a table in downtown Tipton, city officials detailed to Ernst, R-Iowa, and State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who joined the meeting via phone call, the community’s ongoing struggles to meet wastewater compliance standards enforced by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Cedar County city of about 3,200 residents is on a five-year compliance schedule and could face up to $12 million in upgrade costs.

Ernst said small towns across the state are finding themselves in similar situations.

“It is indicative of a number of small communities across Iowa that have these concerns. What it will take to put in new infrastructure for wastewater treatment?” Ernst said after the meeting.

“It seems the regulations are becoming more stringent and of course the systems are becoming more costly and that’s prohibitive for smaller communities. They want to do the right thing, but perhaps we have to look at other ways, other methods of treating our water.”

While Ernst said she will be taking Tipton’s concerns to the EPA, Kaufmann said he plans to do the same with the Iowa DNR.

“This is a small town dealing with federal regulations. That is a very big deal to our taxpayers,” Kaufmann said.

In Tipton, Brian Brennan, water and wastewater superintendent, said the city operates two wastewater systems, an eastside facility built in 1988 and a westside facility built in 2002.

The west facility, which has not been fully paid off, needs upgrades to meet regulations, Brennan said.

“It’s kind of like being upside down in car and you have to trade,” he said, adding that, while aging, the city’s lagoon wastewater system has been working well.

Updates identified include between $7 million and $8 million for a new mechanical wastewater treatment plant and about $4 million in upgrades to the city’s collection system, Brennan added.

“We’re talking a combined $12 million that needs to be spent to get up to par on this and meet the new regulations” that’s obviously burdensome to a town of 3,200 people,” Brennan said. “We want to be good stewards of the land and the water, we don’t want to give the impression that we don’t want to do this.

“However, we’re between a rock and a hard place because we’re obligated to the DNR, we’re also obligated to our taxpayers.”

Tipton City Manager Brian Wagner asked Ernst and Kaufmann to consider the possibilities of providing more flexibility to communities such as Tipton by allowing a longer timeline to meet compliance, or more options to pursue different, possibly less-expensive, solutions.

“Maybe we can’t change things in time for us, but maybe we could for somebody else,” Wagner said.

In addition to reaching out to the EPA, Ernst did note the Trump administration’s proposed infrastructure budget, which would use $200 billion in federal spending to leverage up to $1.5 trillion in total investment.

Of that, $50 billion has been allocated for rural communities, she said.

“Certainly, we would want you to try to apply for any available dollars,” she said. “We have been focusing not just on the bridges and the roads, but also on water systems.”