- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Many small Iowa towns are struggling to afford costly state-mandated upgrades to their sewage systems to limit pollution.

Some towns are considering unincorporating to avoid the cost of installing a centralized sewage system to replace individual septic tanks, the Des Moines Register reported (https://dmreg.co/1Kcd4JL ) Saturday. Officials worry that the cost of implementing those expensive systems could worsen population loss.

“Having an $80 sewer bill doesn’t help trying to woo people,” said Mount Union Mayor John Marek.

The state Department of Natural Resources notified the eastern Iowa town 10 years ago that it had to upgrade its system to reduce pollution. In the four years since it installed a centralized plumbing system, the Mount Union has lost 40 percent of its population, Marek said, and now it’s looking at filing bankruptcy and unincorporating because of the sewer.

In the central Iowa town of Luther, the dispute over a proposed $1.4 million plumbing system for about 120 residents prompted several top officials to resign.

“In the state of Iowa, the majority of cities across the state are under 500,” said Dustin Miller, director of government affairs for the Iowa League of Cities. “How do you engineer for population loss?”

Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins said that he understands the challenges towns face but that there are concerns about pollution from people who live downstream.

The department is responsible for enforcing laws that protect air, land and water from pollution.

“We get criticism the other way, too. If you have people that are downstream from places that septics are inadequate, they’re telling the DNR: ‘Why aren’t you fixing this right now?’” Baskins said.

In northern Iowa, state officials have ordered Rowan to upgrade its sewage system, but the town of about 150 is struggling to find a solution. Local leaders proposed a cheaper lagoon system but couldn’t find the needed land.

Rowan Mayor Ron Bailey said he’s worried about what might happen if the town is forced to invest $1.4 million in a new sewage system.

“I’m afraid if we’re going to be forced to put it in, in 10 years, we’ll be bankrupt,” Bailey said. “We have troubles getting people to pay their water bill, but if this comes in, people will either leave or abandon houses, and then you don’t have the income.”

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, https://www.desmoinesregister.com

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