Cedar Falls' wastewater treatment plant, which must be improved in the next few years. 

CEDAR FALLS — Sooner or later, Cedar Falls is going to have spend millions of dollars to update wastewater treatment operations.

And that means higher bills for customers.

Federal regulations limiting nutrient pollution are inevitable, officials believe.

“Every five years we have to renew our permit for our wastewater discharge, and through those discussions we knew what was happening with the Gulf of Mexico,” said Stephanie Houk Sheetz, Community Development director.

Pollution flowing down the Mississippi River has caused a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where low oxygen levels kill marine life. Nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, come from treated sewage and agricultural runoff.

The situation is driving federal regulations to reduce nutrient pollution.

“We have to have our sights on it. We don’t know when exactly it’s going to happen, but we know our plant right now is not achieving those limits,” Sheetz said. “We want to have our eye toward the future of how we can meet those (standards).”

Last week, the City Council held a work session to discuss possible solutions, which include partnering with Waterloo for a regional treatment plant. There is a $42 million item in the city’s Capital Improvement Program for fiscal year 2024.

“Right now since nothing’s been decided all the options have to stay open,” Sheetz said.

Waterloo held a meeting this week to talk about the prospect of regionalizing wastewater treatment.

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“We have seen other communities that have seen a benefit from regionalizing their treatment, and we know the (the Iowa Department of Natural Resources) and (the Environmental Protection Agency) encourage that,” Sheetz said. “We want to keep our eyes open.”

Cedar Falls also is working with Iowa Northland Regional Council of Governments on wastewater treatment options.

“We think our next steps are to do a little bit more investigation about our plant and the longevity it might have,” Sheetz said.

According to the city’s 2016 master plan, it would cost more than $70 million for Cedar Falls to update its treatment plant on its own. Combining with Waterloo bears an estimated initial cost of $50 million to extend sewer lines and more for ongoing plant operations.

Those costs could change by the time a decision is made.

“There are just so many emerging technologies and different ways to do things,” Sheetz said.

Another option is building a new wastewater treatment plant, but the estimated costs surpass either improving the present site or regionalization.

Higher rates will pay for whatever improvements are made, although bonding would spread costs over a number of years and ease the sticker shock for customers.

“Its the sewer rates that end up paying for any of the sewer-related improvements,” Sheetz said. “We don’t want to have spike them in reaction to one thing or another, but if we plan for things we can handle that a little bit better.”

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