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Lee County Targeting Sewage Run-Off Near Lake

Sep 28, 2016

Lee County is well aware of the environmental problems created by the lack of a sewer system in a small, unincorporated community near Keokuk and is getting ready to take action.

First, a bit of background:

Conservation Director Tom Buckley said there have been restrictions on the use of Lake Chatfield for years due to likely contamination. He said there is no swimming and while fishing is allowed, people are warned about eating what they catch.

Buckley said the Iowa DNR is aware of the situation and recently came to Lee County to test the lake for eColi. But the test was delayed because the water was too low following a leak that has since been repaired.

Buckley said it could be months before the lake is back to a normal depth, so the DNR instead collected a sample from a nearby ravine. Water from that ravine can reach the lake at normal depth. Buckley said the E. coli levels in the ravine were 1000% higher than is allowed for swimming.

Buckley and Bruce Hudson, who is Executive Director of Regional Utility Service Systems (RUSS), presented the findings to the Lee County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning. They told the board the likely cause of the high E. coli levels is untreated sewage coming from homes in the Mooar/Powdertown area.

Hudson's organization works with small, unincorporated communities to build and maintain sewer systems. It started working with the county and Mooar/Powdertown years ago.

The talks have gone on for so long, though, that people seem to be losing interest, given the fact that community meetings about the project have continued to shrink in size. It appears this E. coli test will re-ignite them.

Hudson described the high eColi levels as the "smoking gun" and that the only definitive way to prove the cause is sewer run-off is to test it for caffeine, since that substance would come from humans. He said if caffeine is found in the ravine, it will show the sewer run-off is the cause.

Conservation Director Tom Buckley says it's OK to keep Lake Chatfield open as there are signs present alerting visitors to the environmental concerns.
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

The Iowa DNR has told the county it needs to address the pollution of Lake Chatfield.

The county’s response:

The County Board wants the county attorney, the county sanitarian, Hudson, and Buckley to draft a letter that will be sent to the property owners in Mooar/Powdertown. The letter is expected to inform residents that they must prove they have a proper septic system on their property.

Supervisor Don Hunold said property owners who cannot offer such proof will have to come up with a solution, either on their own or with help from the county.

"It's something we have to deal with," said Hunold. "So whichever way we go, we have to get it done or we will be in trouble with the DNR and we don't need that."

Hudson said previous reviews showed about 20% of the property owners in Mooar/Powdertown have proper permits for septic tanks. He said new laws require septic tanks that are more than twice the size (1,250 gallons) of the tanks that were allowed years ago.

Hudson said the biggest challenge for the county and the residents of Mooar/Powdertown is money. He said an income study was conducted to determine if the residents qualified for federal assistance to build a sewer system.

It revealed a majority of residents living at or below the poverty line, which would make it difficult to pay monthly sewer bills, leaving the county and possibly RUSS on the hook. The estimated cost for a sewer system in Mooar/Powdertown is about $1.2 million.

"I am concerned with the amount of revenue that is there," said Hudson. "I am not saying that our board would walk away from it, but I would be concerned."

Hunold and Vice Chairman Matt Pflug both expressed concerns Tuesday about the county signing off on any financing for the project. 

The board asked that the letter be prepared as soon as possible so it could be sent to property owners, which would get the ball rolling for the county to decide how it will address the sewer run-off in Mooar/Powdertown. 

As for the lake, Buckley said it could remain open because warnings are posted. The board went along with his recommendation.