Toward a Better Iowa: A Multidisciplinary Roundtable

A multidisciplinary team of Iowans discusses Iowa quality of life, aging infrastructure, new regulations and the benefits of regional collaboration.

MEET THE EXPERTS


Perry Gjersvik, PE

Senior Water/Wastewater Engineer


Ross Harris, AICP

Planner


Mike Lyons, PE

Highway Designer


Lucas Casey

Relationship Manager/Former City Official


It’s the 28th state in the Union. It’s where sliced bread was invented. What else makes Iowa special?

Lucas:

The thing is, Iowa has a history of stability. Our economy is somewhat diversified, with agriculture being a major strength, so we’re well-insulated from regional, even national, dips in the economy. We also have a strong financial sector, a strong university system, and well-educated workers. We are smart, hard-working, honest and have a good work ethic.

Mike:

Yeah, we have a good work ethic, and it’s no secret. Look around and see the kinds of companies that are calling Iowa home: Facebook, Google, Microsoft. These are some of the largest companies in the world, and they’re coming to Iowa.

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Facebook, Google, Microsoft. These are some of the largest companies in the world, and they’re coming to Iowa.
– Mike Lyons

Ross:

It’s really the quality of life here in Iowa. More and more people are recruited to move here for work because you can live affordably, raise your kids in a safe environment, and we have a great education system. Those are big draws. It’s an opportunity-rich state. As recently as 2014, there were 33 surveys or rankings where Des Moines was in the top ten nationally for things like best place for living, foodies, and millennials and farmers markets.

Perry:

Iowa — central Iowa particularly — is plan-oriented, collaborative, cooperative, and forward thinking in terms of transportation, natural resources, infrastructure, water. All this growth is happening, and the challenge I’d say is making sure the infrastructure is in place.

drawing
In Mason City, Iowa, form-based codes help guide mixed-use development and growth.

So, aging infrastructure might be holding Iowa back from achieving its potential?

Perry:

Yeah, I would say aging infrastructure. And every type of infrastructure – water supply, roads and bridges. A lot needs to be updated to keep up with growth and the demand on systems. It also depends on the community. Some communities have pipes in the ground more than 100 years old, and they’re still being used. Water treatment plants built in the 60s and 70s are reaching the end of their useful life and need to be replaced or upgraded. There are old sewer systems that need care. It’s now a matter of upgrading those systems.

Ross:

In urban areas, interstates are in various conditions, some better than others. Lucas mentioned how strong agriculture is, well, Iowa has a lot of farm-to-county roads that are difficult to maintain. There are a lot of rural county bridges. The Iowa DOT is doing a good job tackling these issues.


 


Mike:

The Iowa DOT has done a great job narrowing down the worst bridges. They’re also handling bigger issues in the metro area with interchanges, and have completed studies to improve for capacity. The Iowa gas tax helps with the funding of some of these projects. The Iowa DOT has a very good director — he’s innovative.


How do communities prioritize?

Lucas:

For many, it comes down to funding. We have a strong economy, but it all comes down funding and priorities in the local and state levels. Of course, in a perfect world, communities have unlimited funds and can tackle their issues easily. But with major policy questions about water quality and how it will be funded — prioritizing can be difficult.

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With major policy questions about water quality and how it will be funded — prioritizing can be difficult.
- Lucas Casey

Ross:

Prioritization is being done, in large part, by state and federal authorities. Many smaller communities do not have the growth to fund their infrastructure. They need more guidance from state agencies, government to put planning into place to meet needs.

Perry:

For some, it’s new or changing regulations, some communities do not want to spend money until they are forced to. Spending money to improve water treatment facilities impacts almost every community in Iowa. Faced with upgrading facilities, we’re helping comply and keep user rates down with grants and loans. Still, some communities are really being proactive, and putting plans in place to meet regulatory issues. They are staying ahead of the game. They know it’s coming and are preparing.


Related Video: HOW ONE CITY IS TACKLING STRINGENT NEW WASTEWATER LIMITS


Specifically, what regulations?

Perry:

Wastewater regulations are one of the largest. There are new water quality standards throughout the nation, and these are going to ripple through Iowa as well. The Iowa DNR is issuing new discharge permits with new nutrient limits that are more stringent than ever. In larger communities, they’re looking at phosphorus and nitrogen limits. Smaller, more agricultural communities are seeing new ammonia and disinfection limits.

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The Iowa DNR is issuing new discharge permits with new nutrient limits that are more stringent than ever.
- Perry Gjersvik

Ross:

Stormwater management is another issue in Iowan communities. Government agencies are mandating stormwater programs to help control pollution. These regulations improve water quality by reducing stormwater runoff and the contaminants carried by stormwater, but naturally can be tackled in any number of ways


Let’s talk about what Iowa is doing right.

Lucas:

Collaboration. Communities in Iowa do a great job of working together when it makes sense geographically and from a shared resources standpoint.

Ross:

Yes, there is a concerted effort toward regionalism. Cities and suburbs are operating with the understanding that if infrastructure and transportation systems function together, across city lines, everbody wins. Sure, there are still some occasions when you drive down a street and its name changes three times as you move through three different cities, but it’s really improving it. We’re working on it.

Lucas:

For example, Capital Crossroads is a regionally-driven visioning and planning effort that is building on central Iowa’s combined strengths, providing a roadmap to capitalize on opportunities.

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How will we live, work and play in the future? It’s a great question to be asking together.
- Ross Harris

Ross:

Another one is The Tomorrow Plan, which looks forward to 2040 and focuses on the economic growth, the environment, the vitality of the communities we live and work in as well as regional cooperation. How will we live, work and play in the future? It’s a great question to be asking together.

Iowa is unique in that it has 99 counties, a lot for its size and population. In fact, compared to the rest of the country, it’s ranked 9th in terms of overall number of counties, while being ranked 26th in overall area, 30th in population. What that means is we have a lot of local governments that could otherwise be split up, but many in urban areas are working together. Though there are rural areas that could benefit from more collaboration as well.


What words of advice do you have for communities in Iowa?

Perry:

A better community is a proactive community. So put a good plan, good policies and a good comprehensive improvement plan in place. And don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Lucas:

Keep working collaboratively.

Ross:

Don’t be overwhelmed. Just try to get things done when and where it makes sense.

Mike:

Do right the first time. Remember, cheapest is not always the best. And that a good consultant looks out for you and is honest and up front.

About the Experts

 

Perry Gjersvik, PE, is a longtime Iowan and senior water/wastewater engineer committed to safe and clean water.

Ross Harris, AICP, is a transportation planner helping Iowa cities and DOTs improve mobility.

Mike Lyons, PE, is a highway designer dedicated to improving safety on roads and highways throughout the Iowa.

Lucas Casey, former city official and business relationship manager, believes in connecting Iowa cities to the solutions they need.

 

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