Cityscape — April 2014
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President’s Viewpoint

I'm proud of my city and have worked to keep it safe since I was first sworn-in as a Waterloo police officer in 1980. While I retired from police work in 1998, I merely shifted my "protect and serve" duties to other areas of the city. When I took my seat as an elected official, I expected to delve into tough financial and political issues. I was prepared to debate over taxes, road improvements, fire truck replacement and nuisance abatement. It's the environmental issues that have caught me on my heels.

I have found that in city governance environmental awareness is foisted upon you whether you consider yourself "green" or not. There are days that it seems everything eventually has a far-reaching environmental impact. I never expected to make water nutrient reduction decisions in Waterloo aimed at cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico. I certainly never expected to see the day the city would be faced with removing more than 4,300 ash trees due to a destructive Asian beetle. That's 4,300 trees just on city-maintained land - parks, rights-of-ways, green spaces and preserves.

Environmental issues are frustrating: they're hard to visualize and many times invisible to the human eye. They're cumulative and aggregated — culpability spreads across decades. There's rarely a "one and done" fix for them, and kicking the decision "on down the road" only make the solution more difficult and likely more costly. To add to the frustration their solutions are often politically charged — as most things are when the price tags get this big.

To Waterloo, the cost of the emerald ash borer response is somewhere north of $3 million — and that's for an environmental threat we could see slowly advancing like a glacier. Having learned lessons from the decimation of Dutch Elm disease, the city began a tree inventory in 2007 and has an active forestry staff. We're still taking a hit. I know in my conversations with officials from other cities, this will be a devastating hit in many jurisdictions as well.

I don't think we're even close to a final price tag on nutrient removal issues. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico cannot be resolved by the action of my city alone — we are all going to have to chip away on that issue. The numbers I've heard thrown around are nothing short of astronomical, and it will take concerted efforts all along the Mississippi and its tributaries to make a difference.

To complicate matters, nutrient removal is but one of the wastewater, storm water and drinking water treatment concerns cities are facing. The Clean Water Act has a myriad of other components with the potential to drive costs through the roof. Hard metal removal, copper removal and water temperature concerns are just three examples. We've just seen the leading edge of this glacier, and I'm very glad to know I'm not the only one considering possible solutions. The League is very aware of the costs looming for cities on wastewater management from this federal mandate.

I am quite intrigued by the innovative strategies I've heard percolating in the League office on this highly technical topic. As you might have heard ina2013 League conference workshop (How Will The Letters N and P Could Impact Your City?), there's concern over the impact federal regulation of nitrogen and phosphorous levels would have on the cost of wastewater treatment. That's prompted an investigation of how cities might incentivize other, more effective—and nonmunicipal-- approaches. Similar to carbon emission trading, this concept of "nutrient trading" would create a structure to allow water treatment permit-holders to finance nutrient reduction strategies outside the city's treatment system as a way of meeting the permit holder's reduction requirement.

In other words, instead of yet another sewer plant upgrade, a city could pay for the installation of biofilters on farmland to help remove nutrients in surface water run-off. Admittedly, I am not an expert on this topic, and nutrient trading is an idea in its infancy. However, it represents the kind of innovation it will take to actually make a difference on this topic. I've been in city government in Waterloo long enough to know that the classic approach of adding restrictions or regulations on the wastewater treatment process is not sustainable. A subset of the population, served by municipal wastewater treatment facilities, should not be asked to shoulder this problem while other contributors are held harmless. Anyone that has sat through the city budget process knows that approach will fail — eventually this well will run dry, too. It's got too many "leaks" as it is.

Inevitably, even intangible environmental issues come back to financially impact city budgets. These are only two of the environmental issues poised to hammer Waterloo's city budget. Dare I say your city's budgets are also feeling the weight of environmental issues as well? If not, it soon will. As I said, environmental topics are frustrating — complicated and intimidating, even. It's absolutely easier to ignore these issues, but that doesn't fulfill my original mission to "protect and serve" Waterloo. So I'll keep slogging through these tough issues, grateful for the assistance the League provides in breaking down these tough, technical issues.

To end on an ironic note, I've recently learned that the biofilters that could help clean up surface water run-off require wood chips — massive amounts of wood chips. Hmm, wherever might we find some of those?

By: Waterloo Mayor, Buck Clark