A phase we’re going through

Practical experience raised its head last week when the Storm Lake School Board asked its architect to break the high school renovation plans into phases to attract more and lower bids than have been received. President Ed McKenna and Board Member Dave Skibsted both said they talked with contractors who suggested that phasing the project could attract more bidders if they weren’t locked into a project for nearly three years.

The problem is that the low bid for the renovation, which includes building an auditorium, came in about $2 million over the $17.5 million estimate. Only two bids were received on time.

McKenna and Skibsted are working in tandem with the administration to see how costs might be brought down. They do us all a favor by doing their own independent study and thinking about how to do the best project.

We did our own contractor calling and found two sides to the story.

First, bids could go up on smaller pieces with higher per-unit costs based on smaller volume orders. Costs also could be driven up by higher mobilization costs of crews moving in and out during phases.

Second, we learned that a lot more subcontractors would be willing to bid if they knew they were committed to six months or a year at a time rather than for a full three years. Smaller contractors fear losing their regular bread-and-butter work chasing after a huge project that stretches their financial and physical capacities. This factor probably outweighs the risk of higher costs.

In short, more bidders will be attracted. The more intense the competition, the lower the costs should be.

The reason this project was ever conceptualized was for the need of a performing arts center. The auditorium at South School is deemed impractical and inefficient. So it would seem that Phase One should entail building an auditorium on the west side of the high school. A freshman wing and other necessities may have to wait.

It also is important to keep in mind that the district cannot spend its entire lot on the high school. The elementary and middle schools are bursting at the seams with record enrollment. South School might not seem such an albatross if its classrooms can dispel a pinch. Or, the district might have to spend capital funds on brick and mortar elsewhere to accommodate larger student populations.

Taking one step at a time makes eminent sense. It will help get more small, local contractors involved. It should help to bring down costs. It buys the school board time to figure out its comprehensive space needs.

The process inspires confidence in us that the project will be managed properly. When the unexpected happens, it’s good to see the planners stop, take a deep breath and think. That’s what is going on here.

Standards suggest regulation

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission is unlikely to approve a request to set water quality standards for 159 lakes, even though we need them. The Iowa Environmental Council (a non-profit, private advocacy group) presented a petition to the commission asking for standards on clarity, nitrogen and phosphorous. The minimum clarity recommendation, based on the opinion of leading Iowa scientists, was for 129 inches. The current goal for clarity in Storm Lake is 28 inches.

The commission will not accept the standards because the Branstad Administration, which appoints the commissioners, does not agree with standards for surface water. Its position is to encourage farmers to save soil by promoting state and federal cost-share programs.

Second, the commission does not want to set a legal standard under which it could be sued. If Storm Lake stays unnaturally turbid, someone could sue the state to clean up the lake. Standards suggest regulation and enforcement. The commission is not likely to entertain any action that could set up the state to fail in a soil conservation lawsuit that could have wide implications for watersheds.

That’s too bad. Nothing happens to violators when they allow mud to flow freely into lakes and streams. Conservation strips have been ripped up with abandon since corn prices ramped up starting in 2008. CRP contracts are being voided.

The only way to stop the pollution — and so save the very existence of smaller lakes — is to regulate them with standards and consequences. Soil inflow rates to lakes have increased exponentially since 1950, and showed the greatest acceleration since 1980, according to research conducted at Iowa State University. At these rates many shallow prairie potholes will not even exist for our grandchildren. To mandate that they be protected by grass strips and buffers is not too much to ask, or require.