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  • Kyle Sheetz, City Administrator

You Have Died of Dysentery, Part 1

If you are of a certain age, you might remember playing the old game Oregon Trail on an Apple computer at your school. Sometimes you died of dysentery and didn't make it to the end of the Oregon Trail.

Ever wonder why you don't hear about dysentery plaguing the developed world? Well, the answer might surprise you a bit. The biggest reason that dysentery and many other diseases are not prevalent in the United States isn't the health care system. The reason that many diseases aren't even on the radar for most people is because we have water and wastewater treatment facilities that do the necessary job of keeping the viruses and bacteria out of the water that you drink.

I began thinking about this subject while I was at a training conference this week. One of the sessions that I was attending had a brief overview of the Iowa Public Drinking Water Program Annual Compliance Report. This report is published each year on the Iowa Department of Natural Resource's website. It is lengthy and detailed. If you wish to learn how the water systems in the state are meeting compliance, give it a review. You will have plenty of information to geek out on. Here is a link to the annual reports: Annual Compliance Report

System Variety

Possibly you are not aware of the variety of water sources for drinking water, different treatment options for drinking water, and different options for treating wastewater. Today we'll focus on water.

With regards to sources, there are 3 main sources used in the state of Iowa.

  1. Ground Water

  2. Influenced Groundwater

  3. Surface water

Ground water is accessed by drilling wells hundreds or even thousands of feet into the ground to access water that is trapped in the layers of rock. Because it takes a long time for any of the water that is on the surface to trickle through the ground and into these "pockets" of water, mother nature does much of the cleaning of the water by filtration through the different layers of earth. This means that minimal treatment is necessary to make the water safe to drink.

Influenced ground water is not quite as clean because mother nature has not had as much time to filter the water that is moving through the earth to the wells that are placed in these areas. Additional treatment is necessary at the treatment plants using this type of source to make the water safe.

Surface water is essentially lakes and rivers. There is a lot of biological activity in the waters on the surface of the earth. Some of the organisms that are alive in these water sources are harmful to humans, and must therefore be removed from the water or killed so that they don't cause sickness. Treatment at surface water plants is the most variable and extensive.

Treatment Plants in Iowa

The Annual Compliance Report provides some interesting data. In 2021, there were 1,842 water sources in the state of Iowa. Some treatment facilities have more than one source like multiple wells. Most of them, 91.6%, were groundwater sources.

The table below is directly from the 2021 report:

The City of Leon uses Little River Lake as a water source making it a surface water treatment facility. Surface water accounts for 7.1% of the sources in Iowa.

All of the treatment facilities in the state are rated by grade. This is not a scoring system. It is a evaluation of the complexity necessary to treat the water provided by the source of each facility and the facility's flow rate. The grades are: Grade A, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, and Grade 4. Regardless of size, a surface water plant will, at minimum, be a Grade 3 facility.

The following table from the report shows the number of facilities for each grade in Iowa:

As you can see, there are less facilities than there are sources. This is due to many systems having multiple sources, usually wells. Only 9.4% of the treatment facilities in Iowa were Grade 3 or Grade 4. Because of the low percentage of surface water sources and Grade 3/4 plants, many of the operators that I network with at these water conferences don't know what treating surface water is like. Some of them have never even visited a surface water treatment plant.

Water Plant Operators in Iowa

In addition, the licenses that water operators can obtain are classified by grade, Grade 1-4. Each facility must have at least one operator with license grade that matches the grade of the plant. That operator is listed as the Operator in Charge. The following chart shows the distribution of the licenses held by the operators in Iowa in 2021:

There were total of 2,381 water operators working in 2021. There were 505, 21.2%, holding a license that would be necessary to be the Operator in Charge for the Leon Water Treatment Plant.

Final Thoughts

Like all data, the data that I have provided in this post must be analyzed for meaning. Here are a few things to think about before you leave:

  1. The water supply industry as a whole is losing institutional knowledge. What that really means is that many operators are reaching the age of retirement. Those operators have a lot of knowledge regarding the systems that they operate that is unlikely recorded anywhere. The knowledge the retiring operator has is what is being lost when they retire.

  2. Systems that have increased complexity have the requirement to employ an operator with the necessary license. While there aren't a large number of these systems, there also isn't a large pool of already licensed operators that can be used to replace retiring operators. In addition, these complex systems provide water to nearly half of the population of the state. (56.3%)

  3. There are factors that make it difficult for a small community to keep up with the game when looking for operators. Small towns generally cannot afford to pay wages that are competitive with the larger systems. Many people like to live in higher populated communities where there are more and closer retailers that can provide variety and easy access. Other folks are just not "small town" people.

  4. Increasing regulatory pressure from the federal and state government can make the job even busier with additional testing, record keeping, and standard operating procedures.

  5. Aging infrastructure can be difficult to maintain, using up time and resources.

  6. Low to moderate income in a community can make rate setting a challenge to balance the impact to community members with the needed funds to keep pace with increasing operating cost.

So, just a little insight into the issues that water systems across the state and country have to work through. At least your upset stomach is not likely caused by dysentery. Perhaps those spicy nachos at supper last night were not a wise choice.


In upcoming posts my intent is to speak about how the testing regulations that are required ensure public health is protected, and to illustrate how wastewater treatment prevents disease.

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