Des Moines Water Works lawsuit heats up

Des Moines Water Works lawsuit heats up

Des Moines Water Works officials are unhappy with Iowa Farm Bureau's campaign opposing the utility's nitrate lawsuit.

Officials of the Des Moines Water Works criticized the Iowa Farm Bureau last week, saying Farm Bureau's backing of a new group called Iowa Partnership for Clean Water and its media campaign is more about gaining political support than solving water quality problems.

A new television ad began appearing on TV stations in Iowa. The ad, sponsored by the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, takes Des Moines Water Works to task for filing a lawsuit against the county boards of supervisors in three northwest Iowa counties. The federal lawsuit alleges drainage districts in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties aren't doing enough to prevent nutrient runoff from farm fields.

LAWSUIT: The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit targets drainage districts in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties. It claims tile drainage systems are contributing to high levels of nitrates in the Raccoon River and county officials aren't doing enough to prevent pollution.

The lawsuit, filed in March, targets agriculture for causing high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, a major downstream water source for the city of Des Moines and surrounding central Iowa communities.

Iowa Partnership for Clean Water is pushing back
The new group, Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, was announced on Monday, May 11. It's a statewide group that feels the lawsuit is unfair. The group says it shares concerns about water quality, but doesn't support the Des Moines Water Works approach to try to fix the problem by filing a lawsuit.

Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett is on the partnership's board of directors. "Our concern is the lawsuit may stop some of the progress that's being made in improving and protecting water quality in Iowa," says Corbett. Cedar Rapids has been lauded by ag groups for working with Iowa farmers on soil and water conservation projects to help improve water quality.

Former Iowa Lt. Governor and onetime state Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge is also serving on the partnership's board. She says the new organization's stance is that the lawsuit unfairly targets farmers and the ag industry. "We know Iowa has a nitrate problem," says Judge. "But I don't think all of that can be laid at the foot of agriculture. There are many other sources of nitrates, too."

Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley, another member of the board of the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, says, "If the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit proceeds, it's going to be costly to all water users and it stands in the way of cooperation and trying to find a satisfactory solution."

Water Works criticizes Farm Bureau for buying TV ads
Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, disagrees, saying the lawsuit is not unfairly targeting farmers and the agriculture industry. He says the lawsuit is about the ag industry not pulling its weight in efforts to provide clean drinking water. "More partnerships and alliances have been created than reasonable attempts towards a solution," says Stowe.

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Stowe, along with Graham Gillette, chair of the Des Moines Water Works board of trustees, are criticizing Iowa Farm Bureau for forming the new partnership group and for hiring LS2 Group, a Des Moines marketing and public relations firm, to purchase more than $157,000 in television advertisements running on stations in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities markets. The Iowa Partnership for Clean Water lists Farm Bureau's West Des Moines office and its general counsel as its registered agent.

"No matter how often it runs, no television ad will help solve Iowa's serious water pollution problem," says Gillette. He says the Farm Bureau "is more interested in funding a political effort than it is in engaging in meaningful, problem-solving conversation."

Farm Bureau supports Iowa Partnership for Clean Water
Responding to comments by Water Works officials, Iowa Farm Bureau spokeswoman Laurie Johns says: "Of course, we support the efforts of the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. We're happy to see business and community leaders come forward to support farmers and agriculture. Because the reality is, this lawsuit won't improve water quality, it's only serving to divide and delay meaningful progress in improving and protecting water quality."

She adds, "We support the mission of this new group, to bring measurable progress in water quality. Farmers are constantly seeking solutions, looking for ways to efficiently manage their resources, and water and soil are critical resources for farmers."

Farmers and local organizations are working through soil and water conservation districts and have spent and continue to spend their own money along with matching government cost-share funding, on soil and water conservation practices in watersheds across Iowa. The funding is limited and there are always more applicants than funding available each year.

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Iowa agriculture needs time to adopt more practices
Iowa agricultural leaders and farm organizations have said farmers need more time to adopt conservation efforts, such as cover crops, as outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy was adopted in 2013 and seeks to reduce rural and urban nitrogen and phosphorus in streams and rivers statewide by 45%. It suggests various actions farmers can take and practices to use. The strategy is voluntary for farmers to participate, with no deadlines for meeting the goals outlined.

Stowe wants to see a more regulatory approach taken by the government. He wants drainage districts (and indirectly farmers) to be required to meet federal standards for water quality. Currently, runoff from farm fields is exempt from such standards under the federal Clean Water Act because farm field runoff isn't classified as "point source" pollution.

Stowe says the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy has been rendered "totally ineffective" without government enforcement tied to it. "The strategy lacks timelines, standards, mandatory actions, monitoring and funding," he says.

Legal battle is expected to be long and expensive
Stowe again last week said that the lawsuit's potential cost pales in comparison with the cost to replace the Des Moines Water Works' nitrate removal facility, estimated to cost $183 million. The nitrate removal system at the Water Works in Des Moines is outdated, is wearing out and needs to be upgraded, he said.

The utility, which is now running its nitrate removal system because of high nitrate levels in the water supply from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, says running the system cost $900,000 in 2013 and $540,000 in recent months.

The Water Works board has agreed to spend $250,000 to pursue the lawsuit, and the battle is expected to be long and expensive. The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit is scheduled to be tried in federal court in Sioux City.

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