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Des Moines Water Works Turns Nitrate Removal System Back On

Clay Masters

  The state’s largest water utility is restarting its nitrate removal equipment because levels of the pollutant are spiking in the rivers Des Moines uses for drinking water. 

The Des Moines Water Works recently sued three northwest Iowa counties (Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties) saying water from agricultural drainage districts contributes to the high level of nitrates. 

“We have great confidence in the (court) system and those who are part of that system," says Water Works CEO Bill Stowe. "We do not have the same confidence unfortunately in our elected leadership in this state which continue to ignore the public health concerns of central Iowans and promise that results will come thru a voluntary system of environmental protection that hasn’t proven to work anywhere.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says nitrate levels above 10 milligrams per liter are not safe to drink mainly for infants. Friday morning the Raccoon River tested at almost 15 milligrams. Des Moines Water Works spent $900,000 in 2013 and $540,000 dollars in recent months removing nitrates from the water. 

Stowe says it could cost up to $180-million to replace the nitrate removal system. 

"At the same time passing that cost onto our customers in what’s a ridiculous cycle of economic failure that our rate payers pay," Stowe says. "While people up stream who are generating profits out of the agriculture system that caused these costs completely escape any accountability.”

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.