Water, water everywhere

The hundreds of complainants who reported sanitary sewer backups into their homes over the Memorial Day weekend should get some relief from future episodes with a $17 million expansion of the system that is under construction. The improvement will not necessarily ease any anxieties about storm water — as opposed to sewage — seeping into basements.
 
Storm Lake, after all, is built in what God made a swamp. Before Abner Bell arrived back in the pioneer days, the lake was surrounded by marshes, rivulets and tallgrass prairie that held water like a sponge.
 
We came in, broke ground to farm, laid concrete streets and parking lots, put up roofs of asphalt or metal or rubber, and laid pipe underground in the oldest parts of town to direct it all to the lake. Some parts of town, such as around Storm Lake High School, have no storm sewers at all. Given the flat lay of the land, it does not take a drainage engineer to figure out that when you have 11 inches of rain in 48 hours the storm runoff has few places to go except into pipes not built for the job.
 
If someone had a bone-dry basement on Monday, we do not know them.
 
The huge expansion of the sanitary sewer system using federal emergency funds should reduce sanitary sewer backups greatly. City Hall can’t put a precise number on it. Currently, one pipe runs from near Memorial Field on the east side to the sewage treatment plant south of town. The expansion will create a second line that runs around the west side of the lake.
 
Theoretically, we should reduce our sanitary sewer backups by half.
 
We won’t know for sure until the next 11-inch rain. As City Clerk Justin Yarosevich explained, no system within practical limitations could dispatch all the water that nature dealt us last weekend. A big part of the problem is that people continue to hook sump pumps up to the sanitary sewer system. It is difficult for the city to police all the storm water infiltration of the sanitary system.
 
The city has long studied how to divert storm water runoff better. We have installed holding ponds, filtering ponds and even storm water tanks at lake outlets. It’s not enough. The city is now assessing a storm water utility fee at quite a cost to some commercial/industrial properties with a large impermeable footprint. It would be good to see that assessment pay off in an improved storm water discharge system.
 
The farm is washing away
Watching the inlet to Storm Lake on Monday, it looked like Willy Wonka had just opened the chocolate milk spigot. Upstream the erosion was sickening. We are told that everyone is doing everything they can to conserve soil. To the contrary, it appears that farmers are doing everything they can to plow up every last inch of ground chasing high-priced corn and soybeans. Fencelines are gone. The plows are into the road ditches. Not a blade of grass lines some prominent local drainage ditches. Buffers that were planted to protect surface water have been ripped up all around us. We drain wetlands that hold water from rushing over fields.
 
We are not doing everything we can to conserve soil and protect water. Not by a long shot.
 
Most farmers and landowners are trying to keep their soil in place. But “most” isn’t good enough. The few who could be classified as slob farmers do enough damage to make us all suffer. By practicing no conservation, their water gets on a roll before it hits the ground below where the farmer is trying really hard to do the right thing. The good steward becomes a victim of the slob, just like the lake or the home on South Cove getting overrun by mud.
 
Nobody is doing anything to the slobs.
 
Iowa just affirmed its official policy on groundwater pollution. The policy is that the state will encourage farmers and landowners to voluntarily reduce nutrient/sediment pollution of our waterways.
 
Please.
 
Pretty please.
 
That’s it.
 
Meantime, more than $1 million per year is spent trying to remove farmland from the lake. And it just keeps coming in, frustrating our best efforts.
 
Many prairie pothole lakes will be filled up by soil in the next century from unabated runoff.
 
Most of it we cannot see. A gulley-washer should make it evident to us all:
 
We are doing a lousy job conserving what God created. It’s a sin, the moralist might say. We would agree.