Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey yesterday announced he will be visiting the three Northwest Iowa counties that are the subject of a potential lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works. He will visit Calhoun, Sac and Buena Vista Counties on Tuesday Jan. 20 and Wednesday Jan. 21. During the visits he will talk with community leaders and will highlight the significant investment made by farmers in these counties to protect water quality.
"Iowa farmers have invested millions of dollars of their own money to help improve water quality. We need to build on this momentum and work together. Sensationalized rhetoric and threats of litigation are not the answer to help us achieve our joint goals of improved water quality in Iowa," says Northey.
On Tuesday, Jan. 20, Northey will visit with Calhoun County residents at the Calhoun County Expo Building, 400 High St. in Rockwell City. He'll visit with Sac County residents at the Sac County Conservation Center, 2970 280th St. in Sac City. Then the next day, on Wednesday, Jan. 21, Northey will visit with Buena Vista County residents at King's Pointe Resort, 1520 East Lakeshore Dr., in Storm Lake.
Details of the Iowa ag secretary's scheduled visits are:
• Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015: Northey will be in Calhoun County to visit with farmers and community leaders at a 2 p.m. meeting in the Calhoun County Expo Building, 400 High St., in Rockwell City. He'll be in neighboring Sac County at 4 p.m. visiting with farmers and local leaders at the Sac County Conservation Center, 2970 280th St., in Sac City.
• Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015: Northey will be in Buena Vista County for an 8 a.m. visit with farmers and community leaders. This meeting will be held at King's Pointe Resort, 1520 East Lakeshore Dr., in Storm Lake.
The debate over how to improve the quality of water in Iowa's rivers and streams reached the boiling point at a meeting inside the Des Moines Water Works headquarters last Friday afternoon. Several dozen people gathered to discuss the utility's plan to sue three northwest Iowa counties over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. At the end of the meeting, the waterworks board moved forward with its plans to sue the county board of supervisors in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties.
Des Moines Water Works board heard from various speakers
"We don't need more rules and regulations. We need cooperation," said Bill Couser, a cattle feeder and farmer from Nevada in central Iowa. He was one of more than 20 people who testified before the board during a public comment session. Only a few people who were present objected to the lawsuit. Several speakers representing Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement applauded the move by the board.
"Farmers who pollute need to pay for the cleanup. Not the 500,000 people in this community or other communities who rely on Des Moines Waterworks for their drinking water supply," said Barbara Lang, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. The lawsuit targets several drainage districts feeding into the North Raccoon River, as the drainage districts are managed by the three counties. Weekly samples of water taken from the river in Sac County since March have shown high concentrations of nitrates, say officials of Des Moines Water Works.
Water Works officials say they want to seek permitting
The nitrates have caused the Des Moines Water Works to turn on and use its costly nitrate removal operation at the Water Works facility. But the end goal of the lawsuit extends far beyond the targeted counties, Water Works officials say. "We're not out here to seek damages," says Graham Gillette, chairman of the Water Works board. "We are here to seek the permitting and to go through the regulatory process. This isn't about the Des Moines Water Works recouping losses or protecting our individual asset, which is the Water Works facility and system. It's about protecting Iowa waterways."
There are more than 3,000 similar drainage districts across Iowa. Much of the drainage tile and other drainage systems were established more than 100 years ago as a drainage solution for farmers who were farming the flat, black land, says John Tolbert, executive director of the Iowa Drainage District Association.
The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit would be filed under the U.S. Clean Water Act, which gives regulatory exemptions to nonpoint source discharges, including field tile systems on individual farms. Waterworks officials say organized drainage districts shouldn't be exempt from regulations. The U.S. EPA mandates that water suppliers monitor drinking water and limit nitrates to no more than 10 milligrams per liter. Recent samples from Sac County waterways were five times higher than that maximum, according to Bill Stowe, manager of Des Moines Water Works.
Des Moines Water Works is running nitrate removal system
Stowe says the Des Moines Water Works has been running its special denitrification system to remove nitrates from Des Moines drinking water since early December, at a cost of roughly $4,000 a day, to reduce the historic highs in nitrate concentrations for this time of year. Nitrates occur naturally in soil but can spike in the water when manure and other fertilizers drain into waterways. Untreated high levels of nitrates in drinking water have been linked to blue baby syndrome, when a baby's blood can't carry enough oxygen. High levels of nitrates have also been diagnosed as causing various cancers and miscarriages, says EPA.
In a statement, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey called the Water Works threat of a lawsuit "the wrong approach to address the important issue of improving water quality. The lawsuit threat continues the negative, antagonistic and unproductive approach by the current leadership at Des Moines Water Works. Working with farmers to put more soil conservation and water quality protection practices in place on the land, and investing in more of these conservation practices, is what is needed."
Voluntary vs. regulatory approach to protect water supplies
Neil Hamilton, director of the Ag Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines, says the Water Works has some legitimate concerns. "They've decided to sue because they have an increasing responsibility to their water customers and there is a serious water issue here. In this situation, the Water Works has played a valuable role in trying to increase the attention of people and the understanding of this issue."
Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs for the Iowa Soybean Association, says the state of Iowa's voluntary nutrient reduction program that was put in place a little over two years ago has already improved water quality and needs more time to work. "I worry about the message this lawsuit sends to people," says Wolf. John Torbert, the head of the Iowa Drainage District Association, says he wasn't surprised by the board deciding to file a lawsuit. He has heard rumors of a lawsuit coming for two years. "Regulation is always an option, but it's not an option we support," he says.
Regulations on districts would mandate conservation practices
Torbert, Wolf and Northey say regulations on drainage districts, if they are imposed, would likely require practices be used such as cover crops, installed wetlands and buffer strips. These aren't difficult practices to install, but they are expensive practices, says Torbert. He and others called the Des Moines Water Works board's action to support a lawsuit "hypocritical, when you consider that the utility dumps the same nitrates it removes from drinking water back into the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers."
Stowe, the head of the Des Moines Water Works, says the practice of dumping the nitrates back into the river continues because state authorities have not permitted anything else. "We are operating under a state permit that not only allows us to do this with the nitrates that are removed from the water, but it insists that we do it," says Stowe. "The state regulatory authorities believe the alternative, which would be applying the nitrate removed from the water back on the land or putting it in a lagoon, is an unpermitted discharge. So we have no alternative but to discharge the removed nitrates back into the river."