Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad says he strongly opposes the plan by the Des Moines Water Works to file a federal lawsuit against three rural counties over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. He says the matter should be resolved by a collaborative approach. When asked if rural Iowa is going to war with Des Moines over water quality, Branstad said, "I would put it the other way around. Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa. Instead of filing a lawsuit, Des Moines officials should sit down with the farmers and other people who want to do something about it."
Branstad says one of the solutions to the nitrate problem is to improve access to rural high speed Internet service in Iowa so farmers can use precision ag practices that reduce overuse of fertilizer and chemicals. Another is to use more filter strips and other permanent conservation practices on farms. He supports the state's voluntary nutrient reduction strategy, an effort aimed at reducing the amount of nutrients getting into Iowa streams and rivers and eventually ending up in the Gulf of Mexico.
Water Works wants to sue counties over nitrate issues
The Des Moines Water Works board on January 8 voted unanimously to move forward with plans to sue three northwest Iowa counties over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. The board has sent an "intent to sue" letter to the Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun county boards of supervisors, which oversee drainage districts in those counties.
The litigation seeks to force the counties to get federal Clean Water Act permits for alleged water pollution discharges from agricultural drainage tile systems. "What we want to see is the state and federal government consciously regulating those drainage systems," says Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works. He addressed the meeting of the board, held at Water Works headquarters. Several dozen people crowded into the public meeting to debate the proposal. At the end of the meeting, the board moved forward with its plan to sue the supervisors in the three counties.
The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit would be filed in federal court under the U.S. Clean Water Act, which grants regulatory exemptions to non-point source discharges, including field tile systems on individual farms. Stowe says organized drainage districts shouldn't be exempt from regulation.
Stowe says voluntary nutrient reduction plan isn't working
According to Stowe, recent water samples at 72 sites in Sac County have shown nitrate levels as high as 39.2 milligrams per liter in groundwater discharged by drainage districts. The EPA has set a safe limit of no more than 10 milligrams per liter for public drinking water. The Raccoon River was at 14 milligrams per liter on January 7. That river, along with the Des Moines River, provides drinking water for the city of Des Moines and surrounding suburbs and nearby towns in central Iowa.
Stowe stated, "Des Moines Water Works is taking this decisive action to underscore that the degraded condition of our state's source waters is a very real problem, not just to the Des Moines Water Works, but to the 500,000 customers we serve, as well as to Iowans generally who have a right of use and enjoyment of the water commonwealth of our state." Stowe condemned the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary program implemented in 2013 to improve the quality of water in the state's streams and rivers which eventually flow into the Mississippi River. "We have suffered through record nitrate concentrations in both the summer of 2013 and winter of 2014," he said.
The Des Moines Water Works has been operating a specialized denitrification facility since early December, at a cost of roughly $4,000 per day to remove nitrates from water, reducing the concentrations to below the allowable limit. Nitrate concentrations this winter have been at or near historic highs for this time of year, says Stowe.
Farmers are investing in solutions to help solve nitrate issues
Nitrates occur naturally in soil, but can spike in water when manure and other fertilizers applied to fields produce more nitrates and the water drains into waterways, streams and rivers. Untreated high levels of nitrates in drinking water have been linked to blue baby syndrome, which is when a baby's blood can't carry sufficient oxygen. High nitrates have also been linked to various cancers and miscarriages, says EPA.\
Farmers who spoke at the meeting told the Des Moines Water Works board that lawsuits aren't the answer to solving Des Moines' water quality concerns. "We don't need more rules and regulation," said Bill Couser, a Story County farmer and cattleman. "I believe the way we resolve this is by working together." Couser, who has received environmental awards for his on-farm conservation efforts, says he has spent more than $15,000 of his own money to plant cover crops to try to prevent nutrients from escaping his farm fields.
He also uses a range of other conservation practices including reduced tillage, nitrogen stabilizers, precision application of fertilizer and manure, and use of buffer strips and other conservation practices. Couser isn't alone. In total, Iowa farmers invested over $13 million to install conservation practices last year through the Iowa Department of Agriculture's cost-share program.
Northey is critical of Des Moines Water Works board's action
Dan Hanrahan, a cattleman from Winterset, told the board that farmers in organized watersheds and drainage districts are doing what they can. He farms in the Badger Creek watershed, an area of voluntary protection established by farmers in the 1950s. "Since then the conservation effort has grown to involve Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Department of Agriculture, NRCS and EPA," notes Hanrahan. "I live in that area and farm there. We are very proud of the legacy. I'm worried that by filing this lawsuit, the Des Moines Water Works will end decades of voluntary cooperation and instead create a legacy of litigation."
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says the threat of litigation is "the wrong approach to address the important issue of improving water quality. It continues the negative, antagonistic and unproductive approach by the current leadership at Des Moines Water Works. Working with farmers and investing in additional conservation practices are what is needed." Northey says the board needs to work with the three counties rather than take them to court. "Lawsuits and regulations will do nothing to help us achieve our water quality goals," he adds.
Stowe said Des Moines Water Works staff has been making the four-hour round trip to Sac County for several months to take samples from the Raccoon River to lay the groundwork for the lawsuit. He has rebuffed efforts to work with farmers and says Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy—a science based approach to assess and reduce nutrients entering Iowa's water ways—isn't working. Others say the strategy needs more time to work, as it was just introduced in 2013.
Is a lawsuit the most effective way to deal with nitrate issue?
Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs for Iowa Soybean Association, told the board the ag community recognizes it has a problem with nitrates in the water supply, but he questions whether a lawsuit would be the most effective way to deal with it. Like any business, "we want confidence that what we're going to do is going to work."
He says nitrates aren't increasing in the Raccoon River, based on 5,600 samples. "Trends and data actually indicate about a 20% reduction in the last decade," says Wolf. He says Iowa's voluntary nutrient reduction strategy is only two years old, and it needs to be given a longer chance two work. He also says there could be less cooperation by farmers and landowners as the result of a lawsuit.
Tom Oswald, a farmer from Cleghorn and president of the Iowa Soybean Association, says the Des Moines Water Works is using a small sample size as grounds to file a lawsuit. "ISA, Iowa DNR and the U.S. Geological Survey all three agree there is not a trend of rising nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. This is backed by an analysis of thousands of water samples from 41 locations in the Raccoon River Watershed from 1999 to 2014. It found nitrate concentrations decreased by nearly 25% due to refinements in cropping practices and more conservation measures put on the land."
Weather has big influence on how much nitrate is lost from fields
Short-term nitrate levels at the Des Moines Water Works intakes in the Des Moines River and Raccoon River peaked in 2013, after the 2012 drought was followed by heavy rains in spring 2013. Levels of nitrate spiked again last month, an unusual seasonal pattern following a warm, wet fall.
However, despite the recent spike in nitrates, Des Moines Water Works own data show statistically significant declining trend-lines for nitrates in both rivers over the past 8 years. Steady to declining nitrate trends have also been confirmed by Iowa DNR, ISA, and Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance, an association of 13 fertilizer dealers in the Raccoon and Des Moines River watersheds. "Nitrate movement is most influenced by the weather," says Rick Robinson, environmental policy advisor for Iowa Farm Bureau. "Filing a lawsuit isn't the answer. Mother Nature doesn't take her orders from a judge."