Once permitted, green technology could cut costs for wastewater upgrades

Lou Licht wants a permit to use his earth-cleaning poplars in Iowa. But the state DNR wants more data first. - Photo by Jim Malewitz

Green methods could help solve wastewater problems in small Iowa towns.


Iowa has more than 700 unsewered communities that discharge 1.2 billion gallons of poorly treated sewage in to the state’s waters, according to two separate studies by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cited in a 2005 Iowa Policy Project report. And upgrading those systems to meet new federal standards would cost millions of dollars.

But help may be on the way for those cash-strapped towns, according to Iowa researchers, if the state allows them to give it.

Lou Licht, a native of Lowden and owner of the North Liberty-based firm Ecolotree, has developed a method to filter wastewater using poplar trees that he touts as a cleaner, cheaper form of wastewater treatment. And University of Iowa professors Gene Parkin and Craig Just are researching a hybrid natural and mechanical method of water treatment on a micro wetlands site set up on the grounds of a water treatment plant in south Iowa City.

Licht’s technology takes up more land, but burns less energy than its hybrid counterpart, said Parkin.

Another key difference: while Parkin will test his method for two or three years before towns will use it, Licht said his research is “good to go.”

“And when it’s good to go, what’s the deal?” he asked while sitting on the deck of his North Liberty home.

DNR reluctance

While Licht has been permitted to complete wastewater projects in handfuls of states, Iowa is not one of them.

Satya Chenuptai, who heads the wastewater section of the state’s Department of Natural Resources said the department can’t permit work like Licht’s without seeing data showing that it works in Iowa’s unique set of environmental conditions – frozen ground in the winter and waste that is filled with ammonia.

Anne Alexander, a post-doc in environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, who interned with Ecolotree, said Licht’s system should treat ammonia and work in winter as soil temperature a few feet below ground stays near 54 degrees year round.

The system treats less water in winter as poplars stop slurping and transpiring, but microbes continue to work below surface, she said.

“It doesn’t need to be taken up into the tree for the system to function.”

But Richard Leopold, director of Iowa’s DNR until last August, said in an email he can understand Chenuptai’s reservations.

“The department can’t take risks on unproven technology,” he said, though not specifically addressing Licht’s research.

“I am all for “alternative” treatment technologies, and worked hard [at] the Iowa DNR to streamline permitting of such processes. The DNR can’t be in a place that they permit a treatment, and it doesn’t work.”

Parkin agreed more “hard, robust data” is important, but said, “we’re pretty confident Lou’s system and this mini-wetlands system will work.”

Licht said his projects in Wisconsin, Illinois and other states with Iowa-like conditions speak for themselves and that phyto “works across state and national boundaries.”

Alexander said the DNR’s low budget likely stokes its fear of risk.

Chenuptai would agree. He said that budget cuts have taken a toll at the DNR. Until recently, the department employed someone employed someone who devoted all hi time to researching innovation in wastewater treatment, he said.

Just recently, the state cut the position.

This article is part of a series about ecological innovation in Iowa. Read more:


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