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Paying The Price for Clean Water in Des Moines

Clay Masters
IPR file
Drain tile emptying in a drainage ditch near Sac County, Iowa.

This week IPR News is taking a look at water quality in the state.

The governor and state lawmakers kicked around various proposalsto clean up Iowa’s waterways but ultimately no bills were signed into law before adjournment earlier this month. One of the reasons the issue became important this year has a lot to do with a federal lawsuitin Iowa that could subject farmers across the country to broad federal water regulation for the first time.

  A gushing galvanized pipe, about as big around as a car tire, in rural northwest Iowa's Sac County drains into a drainage ditch. This is a common drainage system that removes excess water from farm fields.  

But also nitrate, a potentially toxic fertilizer byproduct. Two years ago after a heavy rain, the nitrate levels in this pipe’s drainage spiked from harmless to four times the maximum safe level for drinking water.

“We want regulation on those pipes and what comes out of the pipes," says Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe. Last year, the utility spent $1.5 million just removing nitrates.

The utility pulls its source water from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. Stowe is suing three boards of supervisors that oversee drainage districts in the Raccoon Watershed. He believes some of the nitrates originate in Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties.     

“We think that’s the only way to get our hands around what we see as a growing threat to public safety and public health by creeping contaminants in the surface waters of this state," Stowe says.

Credit Clay Masters / IPR
The denitrification system at Des Moines Water Works.

Des Moines Water Works had to run its nitrate removal equipment for 177 days last year.

It was installed in the 1990s and needs tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to keep up with the growing nitrate problem. Ratepayers just saw their bills hike 10 percent to help pay for those upgrades. Stowe says farmers causing the problem should have to pay the costs, not his customers.

“You’re intaking a commodity that has serious impacts upon public health," Stowe says. "Flint has reminded us of that with a different issue but the same general concern.” 

Stowe’s referring to Flint, Michigan, which has risen to national attention because of high lead levels in its drinking water.

But the attorneys representing these drainage districts reject the idea nitrates in northwest Iowa are the big problem for the Des Moines Water Works, located 200 miles downstream. 

“Those 10 drainage districts’ contribution to the nitrate levels in Des Moines where the water is drawn by the Des Moines Water Works is four-tenths of one percent," says Gary Armstrong, who represents the drainage districts in Buena Vista County. "Virtually nothing.”

These drainage tiles – essentially underground pipes – have long been exempt in the history of the clean water act. 

Credit Clay Masters / IPR
The Des Moines River on the east side of the city's downtown.

The Water Works wants to prove they should be regulated as a point source polluter.

Collin McCullough represents the targeted drainage districts in Sac County.

“If you take the simplistic view of things saying well since there’s a pipe that means it’s a point source, which is really what they’re doing," McCullough says. "That ignores EPA’s own history as well as Iowa Department of Natural Resources History.”

Tile drainage made farming in this part of Iowa and much of the Midwest possible.

“Do we really want to turn northwest Iowa into swamp again?” McCullough asks. 

As of last month, $933,000 had been donated to the legal defense by ag groups like the Farm Bureau and the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

That’s because this lawsuit could lead to a historic change in water regulation and farm economics. Attorney Mark Ryan is an expert in the Clean Water Act who represented the EPA for more than two decades. He says it could potentially reach the U-S Supreme Court. And if suddenly the underground drainage systems are regulated, it could spell trouble for farm country.

“These tile drains in the Midwest play a very important role in farming and agriculture in keeping the ground dry," Ryan says. "If they suddenly had to treat them I think it would probably in much of Iowa uneconomical to farm is my guess.”

Meanwhile, Des Moines Water Works says the idea the lawsuit would lead to large swaths of Iowa un-farmable is a sky-is-falling mentality.

The federal case that was scheduled to go to trial in August has been delayed to June of 2017.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.