Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey supports continuing the voluntary approach through the statewide nutrient reduction strategy, which is aimed at cleaning up streams and rivers. The Des Moines Water Works is taking a vastly different approach to improve water quality in the Raccoon River, a primary source of drinking water for about 500,000 customers. Water works trustees on Jan. 8 voted to pursue a federal lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties for high nitrate levels in the North Raccoon River, a tributary of the Raccoon.
Northey earlier this week told residents of the three counties that progress is being made to improve water quality and he encouraged farmers and landowners to continue making soil conservation a priority. Northey held public meetings in Rockwell City and Sac City on Tuesday and Storm Lake on Wednesday to address possible litigation aimed at Calhoun, Sac and Buena Vista counties concerning alleged polluted drinking water. He highlighted investments farmers in the region have made to curb water pollution and soil erosion.
Too early to know what the possible lawsuit will mean for farmers
The Des Moines Water Works is threatening to sue the board of supervisors in each county for allegedly allowing nitrates coming from 10 drainage districts they oversee to pollute the Raccoon River, a primary source water for the utility.
The water works board of trustees voted Jan. 8 to issue a 60-day notice of intent to file a federal lawsuit if the drainage districts, in their view, do not cease to discharge pollutants without permits or act to correct ongoing violations during that time period. Ultimately, the trustees want drainage districts — about 3,000 in the state covering 9 million acres — to be regulated and permitted.
About 200 people, mostly farmers and agribusiness officials, attended the first of the three meetings at the Calhoun County Expo Building. Northey said it's too early to say what the possible lawsuit will mean for farmers and taxpayers in the three counties.
Northey encouraged producers not to let the threat of litigation distract them from doing their job, particularly implementing more and more conservation practices.
Water quality problems are best solved by farmers, not lawyers
"Farmers have done an amazing job." Northey said. "But we need to keep doing what we're doing and more of it." He noted the problem can only be solved by the "hard work and ingenuity of the Iowa farmer."
Several local producers explained conservation practices they use. Cover crops, nitrogen inhibitors, strip till and no-till, and improved nutrient management, among others, were at the top of the list. Calhoun County farmers alone received and matched $900,000 in government cost-share funds to implement practices last year. "I would like to tell the people of Des Moines, I would like to give you no nitrogen and keep it all on my fields," said Dwight Dial of Lake City.
Farmers are embracing and using more conservation practices
Embracing and implementing conservation practices outlined in the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy — cover crops, conservation tillage, bioreactors, saturated buffers, etc. — is the best way to improve water quality, not a regulatory scheme supported by the Des Moines Water Works, Northey said. The state, landowners and farmers have devoted tens-of-millions-of-dollars so far toward implementation, he said.
Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe has repeatedly called the 18-month-old strategy a failure. High nitrate levels in the Raccoon River are a public safety hazard and costly to the water works' 500,000 customers, he contends. The utility has run its denitrification plant since Dec. 4 at a cost estimate of $4,000 to $7,000 per day.
To prove voluntary conservation efforts are the way to go, Northey said farmers have to wake up each morning and think about what more they can do.
"It's very important we continue the momentum (of the strategy)," he said. In the meantime, the Spirit Lake farmer and politician said producers have his support, along with many others within the state and federal government. "We have your back," Northey added. "You have a lot of friends."
Farmers have the support of many federal and state officials
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack — an attorney by trade and former Iowa governor — recently said he doubts a lawsuit would speed along water quality improvements and advocated a "holistic approach." Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 Director Karl Brooks is on record as a supporter of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a science-based initiative to reduce nitrate and phosphorous loads in Iowa waterways by 45%.
Randy Souder, an Iowa Soybean Association board member who farms in Calhoun and Sac counties, said Northey's message is right on target. Never be satisfied when it comes to protecting the environment. "We all need to do a little more. In some cases, a lot more," Souder said. "I have more to do."
This could be a long, complicated and potential costly court battle
If the Des Moines Water Works sues the three counties, officials said it's uncertain whether the unprecedented case has merit. If it does, officials believe it will be a long, complicated and potentially expensive court battle that will have local, state and national significance. Northey said he wouldn't be surprised if it lasted up to 10 years.
The Clean Water Act grants regulatory exemptions to nonpoint sources, such as farmland and field tile systems on individual farms. The water works contends drainage districts are point sources and shouldn't be exempt. Doug Struyk, legal counsel for the Iowa Drainage Districts Association (IDDA), said the hope is to head off a legal battle with the Des Moines Water Works. Utility officials previously said they were open to dialogue. "The intent of the IDDA and counties is to engage in discussions," Struyk said. "Litigation is not the answer."