Nitrate-pollution lawsuit pits Iowa's largest city against its nearby rural counties

In Iowa’s largest city, Des Moines, the local water utility operates the largest nitrate-removal facility in the world. It runs any time nitrates reach levels above the federally mandated limit of 10 milligrams per liter. The cost of operating the facility, Des Moines Water Works says, can be upwards of $7,000 a day. Now, the utility wants some local drainage districts in surrounding rural counties held accountable for the costs associated with treating what it calls “extremely high concentrations of nitrate” in local rivers. (The costs were approximately $900,000 in 2013 due to severe rain events, but less than half that figure in 2014.)
Des Moines Water Works announced in January that it plans to file a precedent-setting federal lawsuit against three nearby rural counties that manage water drainage districts. The utility says these districts are responsible for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, which provides drinking water to 500,000 residents.
The announcement got the immediate attention of leading state policymakers.
Gov. Terry Branstad said Des Moines “had declared war on rural Iowa,” and Rep. Gary Worthan said that the lawsuit could affect the work of legislators all session long.
“No one is intentionally sending nitrates down the river; they are too valuable to send down the river,” adds Worthan, whose legislative district encompasses two of the counties targeted in the lawsuit. “The spikes in nitrates are directly related to severe weather incidents they have encountered.” 
The Iowa case could have implications that reach well beyond the state’s borders, especially at a time when agriculture operations are increasingly located in or near metropolitan areas. Because discharges from agricultural fields have been considered nonpoint sources of pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has exempted these discharges from the Clean Water Act. (Nonpoint runoff is exempted because of the difficulty in determining where contaminants come from as water moves over or through the ground.) 


But Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, argues that the discharges should be considered a point source of pollution, and that the state and federal government should regulate field drainage.

John Torbert, executive director of the Iowa Drainage District Association, says that if successful, the lawsuit would require farmers in the state to implement conservation measures such as the use of cover crops, wetlands and buffer strips.

Like many other states, Iowa already has a voluntary program; its strategy is based in part on the state’s 90,000 farmers adopting multiple conservation practices. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, nitrate concentrations in the Raccoon River watershed have fallen 20 percent in the last decade because of efforts such as conservation tillage, high-tech fertilizer applications and cover crops. 

Since 2013, Iowa has encouraged use of these strategies through its Water Quality Initiative, under which the Department of Agriculture shares costs with participating farmers.

In 2014, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says, more than 2,000 farmers invested $13 million in conservation practices — with an additional state cost share of $9.5 million in 2014. More than $7.5 million has been requested for the program in the state’s 2016 budget.
But with the lawsuit, at least one Iowa city is saying these voluntary programs are not enough.
Stateline Midwest - February 20151.66 MB