The Fight Over Clean Water in Des Moines

July 18, 2015 10:05 AM

About 280,000 people live in Des Moines. The metro area has a population of about 600,000. The rivers that provide water to the urban area also run through some of the most productive farmland in the county. In March, The Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit against the county supervisors and drainage districts of three rural Iowa counties. The lawsuit says farm tile and drainage are polluting the water source with nitrates. An agricultural state is in a divide over clean water, between its urban and rural communities.

“The Des Moines Water Works has pointed their hand at one group of individuals saying they impaired their system. That’s where the fight starts,” said Iowa Corn President Jerry Mohr.

Des Moines Water Works filed a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit in March, suing the supervisors and drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. They allege excess nitrates from farm drainage tiles are polluting the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.

“The basic point of the lawsuit is the claim that farm drainage tile is a point-source pollutant, which requires a federal permit. They are claiming you need a federal EPA permit as well as any accompanying state permits in able to use your drainage system to drain your fields for crop production,” said Roger McEowen, a professor of agricultural law at Iowa State University.

“If all of the sudden, regulations come that offer no real mitigation on how you’re going to handle it, just that you’re going to be assessed to pay for someone else’s water because of what naturally goes on in the soil. That’s not the equitable for Iowa farmers (and) may impair production of certain crops,” said Mohr.

Bill Stowe, the CEO and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, has a different view.  “We have a responsibility. The idea ‘don’t worry, be happy’ does not deliver water to our customers today,” he said.

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The situation stems from nitrates in water.

The federal government requires nitrates to not exceed 10 parts per million. If that’s over, it violates the Clean Water Act. Stowe said his regular process of cleaning water doesn't usually involve denitrification; instead, the water works turns on the filtration system if the water is at--or close to--that level. 

According to Stowe, the Des Moines Water Works has had to denitrify the water more than 150 days this year, and he said his nitrate removal facility, which has been operational since the early 1990s, has reached the point where it needs to replaced.  “We’ve operated those units so frequently over the last several year that we’re concerned that we’re not only not using a new technology, but we’re running it into the ground,” he said.

Stowe says the nitrate load in raw water supply one week in 2013 was greater than the entire nitrate load in 2012.  Those in agricultural community say he’s not taking into account the weather--drought in 2012 and flooding in 2013--and its effects. 

Stowe also highlighted the limitations of the Water Works' existing system. “One of the downpoints of the existing technology is we take the nitrates out to keep it safe for our consumers, but our permit has us putting the nitrates right back into the water source downstream from us,” he said. 

Farmers and others in the agricultural community said Water Works' nitrate problem shouldn't be blamed on the drainage districts. 

“Whether there’s corn, beans, alfalfa, that ground will still produce nitrates," said Mohr. "But right now, they’re pointing the finger at corn and soybean farmers and the tile waters. If there aren’t tile waters there, that part of northern Iowa will turn into a wetland."

Stowe disagreed. “Of the 10,000 miles of land that empties into the rivers here, they’re overwhelmingly agricultural," he said.

Will the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit change water quality in the area? McEowen said he doesn't think so. “This lawsuit doesn’t do anything to clean up water, which is the real issue," he said. "It spends a lot of money and resources."

What do you think about this situation? What could either the Des Moines Water Works or the agricultural community do to address the concerns about water quality--without going to court? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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Spell Check

Braden Bills
Jacksonville, FL
8/8/2016 08:40 AM

  I've been wanting to set up a farm. I didn't know that there was a fight over water! It makes sense that I would want to get a drainage system together so I don't have to worry about that.


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