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Water Works Lawsuit Disappoints Ag Groups

Amy Mayer/IPR file photo
Conservation practices, such as this wetland in Boone County, can help reduce nutrient runoff and prevent erosion. They are mostly voluntary.

A group representing many Iowa farmers is decrying the Des Moines Water Works’ decision to sue three Iowa counties over water quality.

Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance is made up of the Iowa Corn Grower’s Association, Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Pork Producers. Executive director Sean McMahon says regulating conservation practices on farmland is not the way to improve Iowa waterways.

“A regulatory approach, in my view, is likely to be a very ineffective and expensive experiment that at the end of the day doesn’t improve water quality and would result just in lost time,” McMahon says.

But the board of Des Moines Water Works, which oversees the city’s drinking water, is tired of relying on voluntary action to improve water quality. So board members voted to sue three counties under the Clean Water Act.

Bill Stowe, general manager and CEO of Des Moines Water Works, says he’s gathered ample data from 2014 to show that drainage from agricultural land in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties sent polluted water into the Raccoon River, forcing the Water Works to treat it. Stowe says the lawsuit aims to hold accountable the counties’ supervisors, who oversee of the drainage districts and what runs through them.

“That’s a responsibility they’ve never accepted,” Stowe says. “We want to bring that accountability to them. Will that be through regulation and permitting? Absolutely. That’s our end game here.”

McMahon says he’s disappointed in the state’s capital city. He also says cities including Cedar Rapids, Storm Lake and Dubuque are taking a collaborative approach to working with farmers and ag groups.  

“So it’s unfortunate that Des Moines Water Works has really discarded that model in favor of an antagonistic, regulatory and lawsuit approach," McMahon says.

McMahon says that will only deepen the divide between Des Moines residents and rural farmers.

“I think it does exacerbate tensions, but if you talk to farmers they will say that they want clean water, too,” McMahon says. “All Iowans want clean water.”

How to get there is the rub.  

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames