Regulatory issues for water and wastewater are the catalyst for municipal budget crunches across the U.S. In Maquoketa, Iowa, City officials faced regulatory mandates and came out ahead. Learn how the City turned a budget-bracing EPA mandate into improved water treatment and distribution, better streets and improved stormwater function, all with limited community disruption.

Mandated changes in water and wastewater operations are leading to new construction and re-thinking of treatment methods for many Midwest communities. Radionuclides – an issue in Midwestern states where levels are significantly higher than the national average – are the particular challenge for community leaders in Maquoketa, Iowa.

Mandating Procedure into Problem
In November of 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced changes to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, finalizing the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for radionuclides at 5 pCi/L (picoCuries per liter). A bigger factor than the required level was the newly promulgated monitoring procedure: now the City would have to sample at each point where water enters the distribution system. Maquoketa had been safely under the MCL with previous EPA rulings that required a sample taken from a “representative point to the distribution system.” But new requirements took Maquoketa\'s reporting level from 1.8 pCi/l to as high as 11.7 pCi/l, and demanded that the City seek out a new treatment plan.

Radionuclides (radioactive contaminants including radium-226 and radium-228) occur naturally and can be found in the Earth\'s crust, in certain types of rock and in the atmosphere. Decaying radionuclides form “daughter” products that can build up in drinking water. Man-made radionuclides also occur, but are not the cause of concern in most areas. Health effects from radionuclide exposure can include increased risk of cancer and damage to kidneys.

The Maquoketa system operates from a series of four wells in different areas of the town. A water quality study confirmed that only three wells have radionuclide levels that violate the EPA standard. But because the wells are physically separated, the challenge became how to treat water from all sources in a way that delivers a quality product that would be cost effective in both construction and operation.

Keeping Citizens Informed and Secure
Beyond planning for the new system, the City faced the challenge of keeping Maquoketa\'s citizens informed without inciting unnecessary panic about water quality and public health. Worries about health risks and water quality went into overdrive when the City was required to send a letter to citizens with language mandated by Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). For better or worse, phrases such as “…when the radiological maximum contaminant level is exceeded…A portion of the radium which is ingested remains in the bone” and “…may result in the development of bone cancer…” got the attention of the public where previous efforts by the City (newspaper articles, notices on public television, radio talk shows, and public meetings) had not.

Maquoketa officials fought potential panic by stating the facts while remaining sensitive to the situation, as in this quote from City Manager Brian Wagner\'s online column to citizens, “The DNR has given us an analogy to offer to people as an example of radium exposure…people stand a statistical chance of 2 in 10,000 that someone will develop cancer if they ingest/drink the equivalent of 2 liters of water per day for 70 years. While I doubt that anyone drinks that much tap water…we should also pause to consider that such statistics are most often offered in factors of “per million” rather than “per ten thousand.”

Planning to Maximize Results
To fix the problem, the City considered two schools of thought: first, to expend only minimal effort and expense in order to solve the immediate problem; and second, to take on a comprehensive, forward-thinking effort to address all known issues, regulatory and otherwise. “Regulations are a moving target,” explains Wagner, “and we had learned our lesson with a previous wastewater plant upgrade that needed more work very soon after completion.” In the end, the council chose a comprehensive plan in order to minimize citizen disruptions that may be looming in the future.

The City chose to combine water from all wells and treat centrally with an ion exchange softening system with blending from the radionuclide-free well to achieve an appropriate hardness level. Estimated project costs from the study in 2003 ranged from $1.8 million to $2.9 million, with estimated additional operating and maintenance costs from $76,000 to $92,000 annually. The Maquoketa system has an average daily demand of 718,000 gallons per day.

Ion exchange softening is very similar to home water softening systems. As water passes through the positively charged – or cation – treatment resin, radionuclides and minerals that cause hardness attach themselves to the resin as sodium ions are displaced. Each of three ion exchange units in the Maquoketa system is “recharged” by flushing the system with salt water on a rotating schedule of one unit per day. Collected radionuclides and hard water minerals are backwashed and routed to the sanitary sewer system.

Implementing with Companion Projects
A major factor in the chosen plan is the addition of at least 1.5 miles of water main from each of the four wells to the central storage facility, plus parallel distribution lines. This meant major upheaval in streets and neighborhoods throughout Maquoketa.

The City maximized water project efforts by rolling multiple infrastructure improvement programs into the water project plan. The plan worked by combining companion projects at each phase of the water project: instead of scraping and patching a single street lane to install underlying water main, the City milled off the second lane in order to overlay the entire street with a new, consistent and patch-free surface.

Other companion projects included street widening to install extra storm main and catch basins in a heavily-effected storm overflow area, replacing a failing floodgate near the Maquoketa River and looping the water system in certain areas.

The water project was also a unique opportunity for homeowners to upgrade their own infrastructure. Maquoketa officials struck a deal with contractors that allowed homeowners to pay back material and labor costs over time through their utility bills. Multiple instances of “Orangeburg” pipe (bituminized fiber pipe that is no longer accepted for plumbing use due to a history of failures) were replaced, meaning many future environmental risks and construction hassles were likely avoided.

Securing Vendors and Financing
Managing multiple projects in tandem with various fund sources can get tricky. The City counted on help from East Central Iowa Association (an association of local governments) to keep track of projects and associated monies from sources including the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), a $600,000 block grant from the State of Iowa, $400,000 in City water reserves, and Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.

It helped that City officials had learned valuable lessons from a previous wastewater improvement project. With those improvements, Maquoketa leaders learned that engineering work covered by SRF must be pre-approved in order to qualify for the fund, and they were careful to secure approval in advance. Likewise, block grants have strict methods for selecting an engineer, so special attention was paid to make sure all funding came through as expected.

Bidding for the projects was broken into two requests; one for distribution and street work and a second for water treatment plant construction. Having two bids gave more (and smaller) potential bidders a chance to submit a proposal; meanwhile, the City benefited from a broader selection of vendors and possible cost savings from increased competition.

Soothing Citizen Concerns
A major challenge was how to present a rate increase to utility customers. With the previous wastewater project, Maquoketa officials were able to work with DNR to customize a debt service, meaning “new” debt would pick up as old debt was paid off, and rates could stay the same. But there was no old debt attached to the water treatment plant and rates would have to increase.

The City commissioned a rate study to gauge reaction to higher rates. They considered increasing the base water level, increasing volume costs, and a combination of the two. Meanwhile, workers were fielding an onslaught of requests from citizens that they be considered for special rates – everyone from seniors to contractors felt they should be excused from the impending rate increase.

Knowing they faced certain backlash from raised rates, City officials came up with a plan NOT to raise rates at all, but to add a line item charge for debt service to the utility bill. And it\'s working. Citizens can clearly see the separate charge, and City staff has an easier time explaining to irritated bill payers that the additional fee is the result of a regulatory mandate.

Some share of the credit for keeping citizens happy during construction can be attributed to both Snyder & Associates, and contract operations and maintenance provider Alliance Water Resources. Personnel from both companies literally went door to door to visit with residents about water shut-offs, explain driveway and street blockages, and answer other questions about project implementation.

Hindsight Observations
Now that the new facility has been online for several months, calls concerning the “new” water have fallen off but still come in occasionally. Diplomatic response to each call is key to alleviating concerns: professionals from Alliance respond to each call in person to test the water and answer questions.

In the aftermath of construction, City of Maquoketa water is well within all applicable maximum contaminant levels. The ion exchange process results in water that is much softer (the hardness level is now at an industry recommended range of 110 to 130 parts per million, down from levels as high as 436 ppm), and naturally the population will have to adjust to a new taste. The softer water also affects everyday tasks like laundry and showering.

The City of Maquoketa made the best of a potentially negative situation by implementing companion projects with an eye to the future. Citizens benefit from safer drinking water, and enjoy a host of other infrastructure and road enhancements that otherwise would have taken years and additional disruptions to accomplish.

Thank you to City of Maquoketa, Iowa, City Manager Brian Wagner for sharing insights and experiences for this article.

For More Information
EPA information: