Sustainability can be messy
An hour north of Webster City is Goodell, a town of 139 people and many more environmental questions. We arrived at a community center, where most of the residents were waiting for us. And over lunch, we started talking about sewage.
Over the past three years, the state of Iowa has pressured Goodell to build a sewage treatment system. The town currently does not have one. Residents have hired engineers to explore the options, who have proposed a plan for new septic tanks and a pressurized system. The price tag of this plan is $2 million, which is “more than the town is worth” according to its residents. The expense and the seeming inevitability of the whole situation has concerned residents and driven them to action. One resident in particular is approaching the situation head on: Pat Sweeny.
Sweeny asked an attorney friend from California for advice, who told him to contact the state’s university for help. And so he did. Sweeny e-mailed Craig Just, associate research scientist at UI, and soon heard back from him. “I accidentally checked my e-mail that day and your name was in the inbox,” joked Just. But indeed, Just’s area of specialization is rural wastewater treatment, which makes him especially relevant to Goodell’s problems.
In a community meeting led by Just and Sweeny, the residents asked questions to Just and shared opinions, while the rest of the UI faculty unexpectedly got involved in what seemed like a difficult, frustrating and confusing issue.
“You are a gap community,” Just told the people of Goodell. “You’re not a small enough community to close shop. But not big enough to make use of the engineers. That’s where my research comes in.”
While the state insists that Goodell does something to treat its waste water, the residents are looking for a cheaper alternative to the proposed $2 million plan. “There should be a cheap way of financing a project in steps,” said Tom Bonjour, City Council member. “There’s ways out there to cure the problem without everyone spending a year’s worth of salary.”
The goal for waste treatment is to be smaller, better and cheaper, Just said. The key is to make it “practical and affordable.” That’s the research question, he said, but “it’s not sexy.”
Goodell is not alone in this problem. Six hundred other communities in Iowa have the same issue and each of them is moving along at a different pace. Some faculty saw strength in these numbers and suggested using that. “Why don’t you join up?” said Sean O’Harrow, director of the UI Museum of Art. “The farmers in France organize and drive down to the capital with their tractors together. And then everyone is ‘Holy shit, they are everywhere.’” Just also sees this issue as something larger than Goodell and notes the university’s role in it. “I believe that UI involvement can help bring rural Iowa, the IDNR [Iowa Department of Natural Resources] and the legislature together on this issue,” he said. “These groups have shared goals of environmental security and economic viability for Iowa that might be facilitated through technology research and commercialization.”
One of these ways could, in fact, be a more environmental and gradual approach than what’s currently on the table. “We need to do it in steps. It will serve rural Iowa,” said Just. “Give them a chance to develop a system that works totally naturally. There’s gotta be a natural way to deal with this.” But, he noted, it may not be cheaper. The bottom line though is that more research and development is needed for long-term solutions toward sustainability.
“I want to see the Goodells in the world thrive, not just sustain,” said Just. After all, it may be about thrivability, not simply sustainability.