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Louisa County proposes a water pipeline from Muscatine

Water supply and contamination has long been a concern in Louisa County, which relies largely on well water. But a proposed pipeline to Muscatine might change that.

WAPELLO, Iowa — Officials in Louisa County are in early talks with Muscatine Power & Water, to see if building a water pipeline between the two would be beneficial. 

The county has long struggled with the supply and quality of their water. 

Entire towns, including Letts, relying entirely on wells. In Wapello, the county seat, a 75-year-old water plant deals with detention tank leaks and cracks. This past winter, city officials even had to go into the tank and weld parts of it shut. Over at the Louisa-Muscatine Community School District, it's alleged water shortages have impacted over 800 students a year. And across the county, firefighters are forced to haul water with 3,000-gallon tankers - a process that can sometimes take up to half an hour. 

"The quality of the water in our county is also not that good," said County Board Supervisor Co-Chair Brad Quigley. "It's got a lot of lime in it; a lot of calcium; and it has kind of a rotten egg odor. So we're looking at bringing better quality water that's less expensive." 

This past winter, the city of Wapello began examining other options for their water supply. The Muscatine Journal reported in December that the council approved a $10,000 preliminary engineering report from Hart-Frederick Engineering, Tiffin. While those results are expected to be released around the end of August, Quigley says early estimates for building a new water plant could be anywhere from $3-7 million, and wouldn't help the quality issue. 

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That's where Quigley says a water pipeline to Muscatine County could be a viable answer. 

"It would mean a lot. It would mean stability of water for many generations, it would bring a better quality water, and it would also possibly bring in fire protection along that route. That's very important," he noted.

The plan is still in preliminary stages, after monthly meetings between county officials and Muscatine Power and Water (MPW) began mid-June. But early estimates put the project along Route 61, and guess it would be around $6.5 million.

The pipeline would have to be paid for and maintained by Louisa County, according to MPW General Manager Gage Huston. MPW owns rights to the aquifer the county wants to access, and says they were humbled when the county approached them for a potential partnership. 

"We need to protect the interest of our local customers here in Muscatine first, both on the aspect of the water supply itself and any financial risks that might come with a partnership," said Huston. "We take this very seriously. But we're moving forward with discussions because these concepts could very well be a win-win solution that works for everybody." 

If the pipeline was approved and built, MPW would be responsible for selling the water to the county. In that scenario, there would be a slight upcharge for the customers, since they reside outside of Muscatine County, as is standard practice for MPW. But, Huston says Louisa residents would gain better quality water in return, and it might even be cheaper than their current options. 

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"We do have the benefit of a really robust aquifer supply here in Muscatine, so we get really high quality water at a pretty low cost," he said. "Louisa is facing some big capital investments to upgrade their system. And so what this would allow, is to forgo those costs and put that money, potentially, into this option." 

It's a point Quigley agreed with, stating that the labor required to reach small towns, combined with aging infrastructure and the inherent waste that comes as a result, are expenses that would no longer have to be paid with the pipeline. 

And Huston stressed that there would be no added cost to Muscatine water consumers if the pipeline became reality. 

"It wouldn't cost us anything additional. And the benefit would be the additional margin for the water that we would sell, that would help cover our fixed costs that we have for our system. So it actually would help keep our rates as low as possible." 

MPW also isn't worried about a water shortage being born from this deal. The aquifer in question is regulated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and has much more water than what Louisa County would need. 

Interestingly, MPW is also planning on retiring two of their coal-fired energy plants in the next few years. Those plants use approximately 2 million gallons of water every single day. 

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"[Wapello] has a peak demand of about 450,000 gallons per day. So even if we add some of this additional demand with the lost demand from the power plant retirement, we still will actually sell less water two years from now than we do today," said Huston. 

In June, 2021, MPW's peak day saw a water demand of 35 million gallons a day. So even at Wapello's highest, the demand would only be a 1.3% increase in the total volume taken from the aquifer each day. 

"And there would be lose revenue to our water utility from the power plant retirement, so this actually would be a way to help recover some of that lost revenue," said Huston. 

Back in Louisa County, Quigley said the potential opportunities a pipeline could provide go beyond better water - without discounting how important that point is. 

"If you don't have your water, you can't have growth. And I think it's very important for our growth of our county," he said. "When you put systems in like this, that are new, if it's designed right, there's very little cost to upkeep it, because it's put in for longevity. We can ensure a good flow of water - of safe drinking water." 

He's hopeful the county can receive money from President Joe Biden's proposed infrastructure bill to help offset some of the pipeline's costs. But that means they need to start getting plans together in a hurry, if the infrastructure funding passes later in 2021. 

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"I would have like this to be done yesterday," he laughed. "But we need to get on to it. Because it's going to take time." 

Quigley says without any plans, it's impossible to say for sure how long the project would last, but he estimates it would take about two years of construction for the first phase, which would reach towns like Wapello, before being followed by a potential second phase that would branch out into more rural areas. 

Notably, the region around Columbus Junction would probably not be impacted by the new pipeline, due to their own new water plant, built in 2008 after flooding. That project cost the town $4 million, but much of that was offset with grants and funding from FEMA - something Wapello wouldn't have access to if they wanted to build their own plant right now. 

Moving forward, Quigley says the next steps are to continue going from town to town, across the county, gathering support for the board's initiative. Then, he wants to see a committee comprised of members from multiple towns, that would engage on a fact-finding mission: looking at budgets, how much the project would cost, what it would mean for customers, etc. 

From that point, the county board would use those findings, and public feedback, to make their vote on whether or not to move forward with the pipeline. Quigley anticipates the committee will be formed in early fall. 

"Water is the upmost of importance to me - it's something we all share. And I just want to make sure that we have the safest infrastructure for citizens of Louisa County," he said. "I think it's just very important that we look at this and bring good quality water for not for just next generation for the several generations down the road."