The three northwest Iowa counties and their drainage districts the Des Moines Water Works is suing over water quality issues could get some help in this legal battle. The Iowa Drainage Districts Association said last week it is asking approximately 40 counties and 20 companies to join the three counties' effort in defending themselves against the lawsuit. The Iowa Farm Bureau is also assessing how it can best help in the fight.
This all started in January when Des Moines Water Works officials decided to sue the county boards of supervisors in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties in northwest Iowa. They claim tile drainage from farm fields provides point sources for high levels of nitrates to enter the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for Des Moines Water Works. The utility serves 500,000 customers in Des Moines and the surrounding central Iowa area.
Officials of the utility say their facility struggles to meet federal drinking water standards on nitrate concentrations at various times of the year, and in some years more so than others, depending a lot on the weather. This winter the Des Moines Water Works spent $540,000 to run its nitrate removal system. Nitrates at high levels in drinking water become a health threat to infants younger than six months, and can make them seriously ill.
Des Moines Water Works is also getting some support
The Des Moines Water Works is getting more support for its case, and is beginning to get some financial help, too. The Sierra Club of Iowa says it will get involved in the lawsuit. And several farm and environmental groups, both in Iowa and nationally, are closely watching developments in this lawsuit. It could set a national precedent, narrowing an exemption for nonpoint source pollution that farmers have had since the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.
Kathy Heggen, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Environmental Council, says her group believes the Des Moines Water Works has legitimate concerns about the operations of the 13 drainage districts named in the lawsuit. "We share Des Moines Water Works' concern about current voluntary nutrient reduction efforts, about the lack of urgency and measurable progress that is being taken to reduce nitrate pollution," she says.
The Des Moines Water Works wants the drainage districts, and ultimately farmers, to be required to meet federal clean water standards, similar to those required of factories and sewage treatment plants, and other "point source" sources of potential pollution. Currently, agricultural runoff and tile drainage from farm fields is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act requirements, because runoff and drainage from fields comes from multiple sources across a large region. Agricultural tile drainage is a nonpoint source, according to the exemption.
Eventual outcome of lawsuit could affect how farmers farm
The lawsuit, depending on its eventual outcome, could affect farming and fertilizer management practices across Iowa and the nation. Farm organization leaders and members are criticizing the lawsuit, saying a better approach would be for Des Moines Water Works to work with farmers to help mitigate nitrate levels in streams and rivers. Farmers and landowners are seeking increased cost sharing help to build more grass waterways, and install terraces, buffer strips, bioreactors, and seed cover crops on the land. Such conservation practices are costly but they help reduce the loss of nitrogen and other fertilizer nutrients.
There are about 3,000 drainage districts in Iowa. John Torbert, executive director of the Iowa Drainage District Association, says his group recently sent letters to counties with drainage districts most likely to be impacted. The association is asking them to contribute $5,000 over three years to help fight the lawsuit. The association made a similar request to about 20 corporate members of the association, asking them to donate $2,000 over the three years.
Iowa drainage district association is seeking to raise money
Torbert says the state drainage district association's board of directors wants to be involved in the lawsuit, and have a say. The group believes it would need to raise perhaps $200,000 to $300,000 and they acknowledge the cost may eventually be even higher, depending on how long the lawsuit lasts.
Des Moines Water Works has been contacted by groups interested in the lawsuit, says Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of the utility. However, Des Moines Water Works isn't actively seeking partners in the lawsuit. Stowe says, "We certainly appreciate any kind of support, but we have no interest in losing control over the litigation and our ability to negotiate a settlement. We'll decide what's best for our consumers. We won't delegate that to anyone else."
The Des Moines Water Works board of trustees has set aside $250,000 of its budget to pursue the lawsuit. The board has also has set up a legal fund where donations from anyone or any organization can be made to support the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. Stowe says this fund has about $500 in it so far.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Can drainage districts be sued? What is the definition of "point source" vs. "nonpoint source" water pollution? Be sure to read the article "Water's definition is at center of lawsuit" on page 3 of April 2015 issue of Wallaces Farmer magazine. It is written by Kristine Tidgren, staff attorney at the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University. She and ISU ag law professor Roger McEowen explain the legal implications and issues raised in this lawsuit that was officially filed March 16 by the Des Moines Water Works. An editorial on page 10 of that same magazine also discusses the suit.