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Des Moines Water Works: State Not Doing Enough To Avoid Environmental Mediocrity

Clay Masters
An Iowa farmer displays one of the rye plants he's using as a cover crop to lock more nutrients on his farm instead of sending down river.

  New figures from Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship show 1,800 Iowa farmers have taken advantage of $3.5 million in state money meant to reduce pollutants from their fields. The state’s largest water utility says the figures divert attention from Iowa’s slide toward accepting environmental mediocrity.

Des Moines Water Works is in the midst of a lawsuit with three northwest Iowa drainage districts for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. Officials with the water utility say it needs up to $183 million to update its system to treat the water for its half a million customers.

Dustin Vande Hoef with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship says they’re continuing to see a strong interest from farmers to use state money to implement clean water practices voluntarily.

“That’s what we’re trying to do is make sure these practices work with their operations so they can fit in and be a benefit to them and something they’ll be able to do long term and make improvements in water quality,” Vande Hoef says. “This is the third year we’ve offered assistance through the water quality initiative for these practices and continue to see a great interest from farmers.”

Vande Hoef says nearly 1,000 of those farmers are using the practices for the very first time.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe sees the new figures as a distraction.

“Meaningful environmental protection in a state increasingly besieged by dangerous water quality is directly undercut by vastly under resourced attempts to claim water quality improvements,” Stowe says. 

The practices eligible for the funding are cover crops, no-till or strip till, or using a nitrification inhibitor when applying fall fertilizer.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.