Water Security in Iowa – Knowing What You Use, Having a Good Plan

That’s why VBC, which opened its Osage biochemical plant four years ago, now is working to obtain more control over both the water it receives from the city and the wastewater it creates. Valent BioSciences has spent roughly the past year working to take over management of the city-run pretreatment facility that processes its wastewater, and the company is talking about one day helping Osage build a citywide facility to soften the area’s mineral-heavy drinking water.

All of this, Zimmerle believes, is simply good business.

“There’s only a set amount of water on our earth,” he said. “We don’t want to just keep using it up. . . . If we’re using more water than we need to from an industrial point of view, that’s not any benefit to anyone. It’s an increased cost to us.”

Businesses across Iowa should be coming to the same conclusions, argues CIRAS account manager Brenda Martin. Companies that fail to plan for future water-related problems could one day face an ugly surprise.

“We have helped some companies with incoming water quality issues that have affected their products and processes,” Martin said. “They’ve had to stop production until they figured it out.”

“Long term, we need our manufacturers to be prepared and start to develop strategies so they can survive and be competitive,” she said. “We need them to have a corporate water strategy—a company strategy built around knowing that they have enough clean water coming in, that they’re not being wasteful in the processes for their facilities, and that they actually know how much they use, what they need, and what they’re putting down the drain.”

To help firms prepare, CIRAS is hosting a daylong event on November 8 to aid manufacturers in identifying the looming threats tied to water supply, overuse, and disposal.

Iowa currently has plenty of water, experts agree. But that could change, they caution, with something as simple as a prolonged draught. A 2013 study by two Iowa State University economists estimated that any water shortage severe enough to cause a one-percent decline in Iowa’s grain output would cause a rippling wave of higher prices that would eliminate more than 800 jobs and reduce Iowa’s industrial output by $326 million.

Clean water, while plentiful, is not automatic, cautions Angie Kolz, lead water/wastewater engineer with WHKS & Co. in Ames. “You can’t just poke a hole in the ground and put a new well in,” she said. “You need to go through a permitting process to make sure you’re not going to remove water or take it away from somebody else. You can’t take that process for granted.”

“Regardless, the water supply is less of an impending thing than the wastewater.”

Communities across Iowa are expected to face tighter and tighter scrutiny in the coming years over the volume of nutrients such as nitrates and ammonia that they allow to be released into Iowa streams, Kolz said. When aging rural wastewater treatment systems can’t handle the enlarged load, system owners increasingly are turning to nearby manufacturers to pay for a solution. “If you violate a state discharge permit, then somebody is going to ask you to do something, which could be very expensive,” Kolz said.

For Bill Zimmerle, doing something means taking control.

Valent BioSciences believes the company will be better off if its biochemical operations can be run in harmony with the pretreatment plant. Joint control means the treatment plant, which is capped at the amount of water it can handle each day, wouldn’t be surprised by VBC’s output. And VBC would no longer be shocked by sudden decisions to take the waterplant offline for maintenance.

Zimmerle said VBC is working on ways to cut back on the water it uses and capture as much as possible for reuse before it leaves the plant. Longer term, it eventually may make sense for VBC to protect its future supply by partnering with Osage on a community drinking water plant—something that would both help the company and eliminate the need for water softeners in Osage area homes.

The math as to what does or doesn’t make sense for VBC is still being calculated, Zimmerle said. But those are the kinds of decisions that have to be explored.

CIRAS’ Brenda Martin intends to lead exactly that kind of exploration at the event in November.

“It’s a culture shift,” she said. “We’re going to try to get them thinking about water as strategically as they would anything else in their supply chain.”


> For more information, contact Brenda Martin at bkmartin@iastate.edu or 515-570-5282.


A version of this article was published in the Summer 2018 edition of CIRAS News. To read more of that edition or others, please explore elsewhere on our website.