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Des Moines Water Works Goes Forward with Lawsuit Against Northwest Counties

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

The state's largest water utility has voted to proceed with its lawsuit against three northwest Iowa county boards of supervisors. Des Moines Water Works first announced its intent to sue back in January.

The water utility says high nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, which supply the city's drinking water, are a result of nitrogen fertilizer runoff from farms in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties.

Des Moines Water Works chairperson Graham Gillette acknowledges it’s unusual for a municipal water utility to sue a county board, but he contends such action is necessary to protect the health and financial interests of Des Moines Water Works rate payers.

"If something's not done," Gillette says, "if water quality in Iowa doesn't improve, we have to spend $80-180 million to build a new denitrification unit. Or do other things that continue to invest in other infrastructure to combat this problem."

Des Moines attorney Charles Becker of the Belin McCormick law firm is representing Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties. In a written statement Becker says, “We are disappointed to learn of the planned lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works board. Having not been yet provided with any suit papers it would be premature for us to comment further.”

Gov. Terry Branstad says the lawsuit is a mistake that undermines collaboration between the agriculture industry and city municipalities.