A proposed agreement with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources could save the City of Dubuque from having to make costly upgrades to its wastewater treatment plant.

City Council Members recently received an update on a proposed nutrient trading program. Under the program, the city would receive credit toward meeting water quality obligations under a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit for urban and agricultural conservation practices it implements in watersheds throughout the county in conjunction with other groups.

To further reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the effluent released into the Mississippi River from the city’s relatively new treatment plant under the permit would require an estimated $11 million in upgrades, according to city staff.

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The $70 million Water & Resource Recovery Center was completed just prior to the state’s nutrient reduction strategy taking effect.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus that makes its way into the Mississippi can hinder recreation and treatment of drinking water, and suffocate aquatic life.

Under the agreement, the city would commit to achieving its reduction goals by 2032 through payments made to farmers and landowners in exchange for the implementation of conservation practices that improve water quality.

“It creates more flexibility for the city to address our nutrient reduction requirements,” Council Member Brett Shaw said. “We would be leveraging existing watershed partnerships, or creating new ones ... to offset capital investment within our own wastewater recovery center.”

The city could receive credit for voluntary watershed work it has done from 2013 to date, so long as it can demonstrate that those efforts led to improved water quality.

In 2016, Dubuque and Storm Lake were selected by the Iowa League of Cities to test out nutrient trading as a pilot project. The city secured $1.4 million in state dollars to be managed by the Catfish Creek Watershed Management Authority. That money has been used to pay for stream restoration, to plant cover crops and for soil quality- restoration projects.

City, county and state officials say it is more cost-efficient to keep nutrients from running off parcels into waterways, as the vast majority of such pollution comes from those non-point sources.

“It does not impose any new deadlines or any new burdens on you (and) just offers an alternative to meeting the ones you already have,” said attorney Bartlett Durand, of the Madison, Wis.-based nonprofit conservation firm Sand County Foundation.

The firm has been working with the city to develop the agreement, which would come back to council members for formal approval later this year.

There was some debate about whether it made more financial sense to invest in conservation practices instead of making brick-and-mortar upgrades to city-owned facilities. But City Manager Mike Van Milligen said investing in conservation practices is “a better way to do it.

“But what makes it work is the access to grants (and other financing) that creates the added value,” he said.