Students help Lake Delhi solve long-standing waste water problem

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After a 2010 flood on the Maquoketa River caused the Lake Delhi dam to collapse and the lake behind it to drain, residents in this northeast Iowa community thought they might never get back their picturesque water views. But seven years later, thanks to an influx of state funding and the construction of a new dam, the lake and its prized scenery have returned.

However, Lake Delhi residents still face one last hurdle in flood recovery: They must improve waste water treatment, including aging septic systems, by 2020 or face fines. Eager to solve the problem and meet the deadline, local officials sought help from the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, a program administered by the University of Iowa Provost’s Office of Outreach and Engagement that helps Iowa communities become more socially, economically, and environmentally resilient through partnerships with UI professors, staff, and students.

“When we heard about the Lake Delhi project, we immediately felt that it would be really interesting and also a lot of fun to work with the community to improve water quality,” says Kelly Wollner, a senior civil and environmental engineering student from Jackson, Wisconsin. “We really wanted to use the skills that we’d learned in the classroom in the real world, and this just seemed like a great opportunity to do that.”

Wollner and teammates Brian Cummings, Esteban Londono, and Jason Ruffatti had a semester to come up with a plan for Lake Delhi, an enclave of summer and weekend homes, some of which still use outdated septic tanks. While working on the project, students used information from classroom lessons and discussions with professors, but also explored new environmental engineering techniques and waste water management concepts to find the safest and most cost-effective way to modernize waste water systems for about one-third of the Lake Delhi community.

The project was complicated by state regulations that restrict the placement of waste water systems, including septic tanks, too close to existing water wells. And then there was the looming deadline. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources gave Lake Delhi until 2020 to upgrade its waste water system; if the community doesn’t comply, fines could follow. Students contacted residents to discuss the waste water dilemma and gauge their willingness to work with community officials to get the job done before the deadline. Residents, for the most part, were cooperative.

“We’re about two-thirds of the way there, but the homes that are left are on small lots or steep lots,” says Dennis Lyons, Delaware County sanitarian. “It’s a real challenge to come up with ideas for these lots.”

Lyons met with UI engineering students and their teaching assistant, Rebecca Mattson, along the banks of Lake Delhi in September 2017. During a tour of the community, which included a range of housing from modern homes to rustic cabins, students realized they were going to have to come up with several proposals.

“The hardest part of this project was making realistic assumptions about what each homeowner would be willing to do, pay, et cetera,” says Ruffatti. “A lot of the homes on Lake Delhi do not see much occupancy during the year, so we had to take into account the fact that some homeowners were not going to pay a lot of money to upgrade a system that they use only a few months out of the year.”

Ruffatti said the region’s topography, which is hilly in places, also posed unforeseen challenges.

“I learned that problems can get exponentially more complicated as you dig further into them,” he says. “We certainly did not think our outcome would be what it ended up being, but it was a lot of fun to get to that point.”

In the end, the engineering students came up with three proposals, each based on topography and number of lots served. Students also researched septic tank systems at different price points to give residents investment options.

Students presented their ideas to their classmates, professors, and Lyons, the Delaware County official, as part of a final exam for Environmental Engineering Design, a class taught by UI professor Timothy E. Mattes. Besides the oral presentation, students also had to prepare PowerPoint slides and a written report. Mattes says the design project is an important step in preparing students to complete their senior design project, or capstone, which is a graduation requirement.

“These are real-world projects and they have to come up with solutions to them,” Mattes says just minutes before the students make their oral presentation. “I want to see how they perform.”

The students then received some immediate feedback from Lyons.

“I think they did a really good job,” says Lyons, who also congratulated students on the professional and courteous manner with which they communicated with the town’s residents.

Travis Kraus, assistant director of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, also praised the students.

“They took on a challenging project, and they were able to use their knowledge to provide the Lake Delhi community with several viable solutions,” said Kraus, who also attended the students’ final presentation. “The University of Iowa has so many resources available, and this is one way to ensure that those resources get shared across the state for the largest impact possible.”

As they prepare for their capstone project and graduation, students say the Lake Delhi project helped them feel more confident about the future.

“One of the most important things going forward with our lives is thinking about the design of everything, and this project really helped show how many different designs or ways to solve a problem are out there,” says Brian Cummings, a civil and environmental engineering student from Deerfield, Illinois. “But when you lay everything out and look at what is most important, you really can find the best solutions possible.”

The experience may have inspired one student to pursue a graduate degree.

“This project definitely reinforced my desire to be an engineer,” said Esteban Londono of Grayslake, Illinois. “It was difficult keeping up with client expectations and keeping everyone up to date on progress, but in the end, it allowed me to make a tangible impact on the world.”

Source: University of Iowa

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