The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three counties over high nitrate levels in rivers is part of intensifying efforts by environmental groups around the country to treat agriculture like other industries long held accountable for environmental pollution.
The Water Works board filed its lawsuit Monday against three northern Iowa counties that oversee drainage systems that remove water from farm fields and send it downstream. The water often carries chemical compounds, including nitrate, that Des Moines must remove to keep drinking water safe. The nitrate comes from fertilizer and manure from 1.2 million hogs and a million turkeys that is spread on the fields in the three counties.
"The lawsuit seeks relief from the burdens Des Moines Water Works faces as providers of safe drinking water, and recognition of the role of drainage districts when passing production costs downstream," said Graham Gillette, the utility board's chairman.
County supervisors in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties manage 10 drainage districts that the lawsuit says should be required to obtain federal water pollution discharge permits because they release nitrate pollutants into rivers much like regulated factories.
"We are disappointed the lawsuit was filed and intend to defend the action vigorously," said Chuck Becker, a Des Moines attorney hired by the three counties.
Water Works also seeks to recover damages for $900,000 spent in 2013 and $540,000 this year to operate an expensive treatment system that removes the nitrate from water.
Nitrate in drinking water must be below 10 milligrams per liter to be considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Anything above that level can be deadly to infants younger than 6 months because the chemical can reduce the amount of oxygen carried in their blood, causing a condition called Blue Baby syndrome which can be fatal, according to the EPA.
Recent upstream monitoring recorded levels as high as 39.2 milligrams per liter in groundwater discharged by drainage districts in Sac County.
Similar cases in other states, including California, North Carolina and Washington, are challenging farms to reduce pollutants.
In a federal lawsuit against a Washington dairy farm, Judge Thomas Rice concluded in January that livestock manure may be considered solid waste subject to regulation. Rice said a dairy operation "may be presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to the nearby residents who are consuming the nitrate-contaminated groundwater."
It's the first ruling of its kind, one environment groups have sought for years, according two environmental attorneys.
"Concentrated animal feeding operations, whether they're huge hog farms, huge dairies, or poultry operations, are all causing significant harm to human health and the environment," said Charlie Tebbutt, an Oregon environmental lawyer.
"There's the sense these are bucolic family farms with animals on pastures but that's just not the case," said Jessica Culpepper, a food safety and health attorney with Public Justice, a national public interest law firm. "Until we start treating them like a factory, which is what they are, we will keep having these problems."
Historically, farms have largely been allowed by state governments and the EPA to work voluntarily to reduce nitrate and similar pollutants.
Iowa farmers are testing practices on 275,000 acres, including cover crops, nutrient management, wetlands, terraces, bioreactors and buffer strips to help lower nitrate, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said.
"These projects have been in the works for a long, long time," Northey said in a statement. A lawsuit isn't necessary and farmers shouldn't let it be a distraction from their efforts, he said.