Last Word: Regulating for Drinking Water Protection in Iowa’s Agricultural Watersheds

In 1972, a hard-fought battle, led by the Izaak Walton League and other conservation groups, resulted in the Clean Water Act and a new national goal to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters.” The Act also gave citizens a strong role to play in protecting and restoring waters.

More than 40 years later, Des Moines Water Works exercised that right and recently filed a federal lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties – as trustees of 10 drainage districts – for the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River and failure to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Des Moines Water Works’ mission is to provide safe, abundant, and affordable drinking water. However, record nitrate levels in both the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers – the primary sources of water for the approximately 500,000 people we serve – have been peaking at concentrations above the Safe Drinking Water Act’s requirements, forcing us to operate a costly denitrification process, seek new capital improvements, and tap into reserve water to keep drinking water safe.

Dumping polluted groundwater into the waterways is causing significant environmental damage and putting people downstream at risk. Des Moines Water Works is asking that drainage districts seek and receive the same permit as other entities that discharge into surface waters, and that the water being handled by drainage districts be required to meet reasonable standards before being dumped into our rivers and streams. The health risks associated with nitrate contamination above Safe Drinking Water Act standards include “blue baby syndrome” and endocrine disruption. Nitrate pollution also contributes to hypoxic conditions in public waters, including the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”

It is time for agriculture to be held accountable for the impacts of its production, like any other business. Des Moines Water Works rate payers should not lose confidence in their right to safe drinking water or bear production costs from agricultural producers upstream.

It’s clear that most Iowans want to see increased action to achieve measurably cleaner water in the state. A Des Moines Register poll conducted in February found that 63 percent of Iowans supported the decision to pursue a lawsuit against the three northwest Iowa counties. Protecting clean water for all Iowans is what we’ve been urging for years; now the need for solutions to make immediate reductions is urgent.

According to the Nutrient Reduction Strategy – Iowa’s mandated policy to address nutrient pollution – 92 percent of Iowa’s nitrogen pollution introduced to the Mississippi River comes from agricultural land. In 2014, Iowa farmers voluntarily planted nearly 100,000 acres of cover crops to reduce nitrogen loss. While this is certainly nothing to shrug at, when you compare that with the 12 million acres of cover crops the Strategy suggests, we are less than 1 percent of the way to reaching our cover crop goal. And cover crops are just one of the measures suggested in the Strategy.

Des Moines Water Works’ legal action grows out of frustration of the persistent rhetoric of state and industry leaders of recent successes of these voluntary approaches, despite lack of funding, standards, timelines, or measurements. Small-scale, voluntary actions are not enough. We need specific, enforceable commitment and a time frame around a specific plan of actions to achieve the goal of clean, safe water.

It seems that this will be another hard-fought battle to restore and protect our waters, the public right to clean drinking water, and the pocket books of Des Moines Water Works ratepayers.

Bill Stowe is CEO and General Manager of Des Moines Water Works.