In 2015, the Des Moines Water Works, Iowa’s largest water utility, filed a lawsuit in federal court against TEN upstream drainage districts in three counties

by Jack Wannarka

They cited that for years fertilizer runoff on agricultural land had leached into local waterways and polluted the drinking water of nearly 500,000 Des Moines residents. The case was a test. Could a federal law, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and its provisions for safe drinking water (SDWA), be used at the local level to compel farmers to change their farming practices? Would the Environmental Protection Agency join the fight?

If Des Moines Water Works prevails in the lawsuit, Iowa’s drainage districts will be regulated under the Clean Water Act as ‘point sources.’ The districts will be required to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to discharge pollutants into Iowa’s waterways — just like any other regulated entity. Nationally, these permits have been successful in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge. This same success could be achieved by controlling agricultural discharge in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. Such a landmark ruling could change agriculture across the nation.

CITIZEN SUIT

As stipulated by Iowa Code 455b.111, citizens are allowed to sue those who go over the set limits for pollution or who do not have permits. Bill Stowe is suing drainage districts located in Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties to have regulations enforced on the agricultural runoff leaching into public waterways from land in that area.

POINT SOURCE

Defined by the EPA as “any single identifiable source from from which pollutants are discharged.” Currently, agricultural run off from drainage tiles are not considered “point source.”

EPA CLEAN WATER ACT

Gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set maximum levels of pollution allowed from point sources. According to this law, permits have to be obtained before pollutants can be discharged.

“It’s very clear to me that traditional, industrial agriculture has no real interest in taking the steps that are necessary to radically change their operations in a way that will protect our drinking water.”


WILLIAM STOWE
CEO
Des Moines Water Works
Des Moines, IA

TO UNDERSTAND WHY THE DES MOINES WATER WORKS DECIDED TO SUE DRAINAGE DISTRICTS IN THREE UPSTREAM COUNTIES FOR NITRATES IN THEIR DRINKING WATER, STUDENTS FROM AMES HIGH SCHOOL PAID A VISIT TO NEIL HAMILTON.

by Douglas Gayeton

Des Moines Waterworks filed suit against Iowa’s Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, claiming that their county-managed drainage districts serve as conduits for nitrate moving from farm fields into the Raccoon River, one of two water sources for 500,000 residents in the Des Moines metro area.

Des Moines Water Works is asking three major questions:

1) Can drainage ditches be treated like waste treatment plants and factories as point-sources for water pollution?

2) Who should pay DMWW defense fees?: the county (taxpayers) or the people ? Perhaps people who own land in these drainage districts?

3) Can the true source of nitrate in the Raccon River be determined?”

“The Des Moines Water Works is frustrated. They’ve got half a million customers and they’ve got to meet federal pollution standards with every gallon they put out. The water’s coming down [to Des Moines], and it’s impacted by agriculture. I don’t think there’s a lot of debate about that; it’s the most significant source from where these nutrients are coming from.

“So, it’s not to say we need to stop farming in Northwest Iowa, or that you can’t use nitrogen to grow corn. I don’t even think they are necessarily interested in money damages. Iowa law is very clear that they can’t recover money from the districts. What they want is somebody to do something. Show you’re going to do something to deal with all these nitrates that are leaking … because it doesn’t look like anyone wants to take responsibility.”


NEIL HAMILTON
Director of the Agricultural Law Center
Drake University
Des Moines, IA

IOWA FARMERS CAN HAVE significant impacts on the quality of ocean life in the gulf of mexico simply by adapting more responsible farming practices.

by Alexia and Jackson

Iowa thrives as an agricultural state, but current land management plans (including the use of tiles to quickly drain rainwater off fields) don’t do enough to keep harmful nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediments from flowing downstream into the Mississippi River and subsequently the Gulf of Mexico.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are natural parts of any aquatic ecosystem. They support the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which provide food and habitat for fish and smaller organisms. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus levels, however, can create algal blooms, increasing the potential harm to water quality, food resources and habitats, while creating “Dead Zones” that effectively suck all the oxygen out of the water, suffocating fish and killing shellfish.

IOWA NUTRIENT REDUCTION STRATEGY (INRS)

A science and technology-based framework crafted by the Iowa Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Iowa State University to assess and reduce nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediments) flowing to Iowa waters, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. It directs voluntary efforts to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost effective manner, including the use of conservation practices like wetlands, prairie strips & cover crops to reduce agricultural runoff.

NUTRIENT LOADING

Quantity of nutrients entering an ecosystem in a given period of time.

Eutrophication

Excessive plant and algal growth due to the increased availability of one or more growth factors needed for photosynthesis, such as sunlight, carbon dioxide, or nutrient pollution (containing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds) generated by human activities like agriculture. Eutrophication often leads to the death of animal life from hypoxia, or the lack of oxygen.

WHAT IF WATER INITIATIVES LIKE IOWA’S NUTRIENT REDUCTION STRATEGY WERE MANDATORY INSTEAD OF VOLUNTARY, AND FARMERS WERE FORCED TO COMPLY WITH RULES AND REGULATIONS THAT ELIMINATED PRACTICES THAT CONTRIBUTE TO AGRICULTURAL RUNOFF?

by Mattie, Selena, Jack and Robby

“My husband and I both grew up on Iowa farms during the 1950’s when conservation was a way of life.” says Rosie Partridge. “Over time, farming practices have become more intensive. With row cropping, erosion and water quality have become bigger issues; the natural systems and native plants that kept the rich soil in place have been eliminated. This influenced our decision to put most of our land into conservation practices.”

MANDATORY RULES AND REGULATIONS FOR AGRICULTURAL RUNOFF

A provision of the Clean Water Act that regulates point sources that discharge pollutants into US waters.

POINT SOURCE

A source of pollution that discharges from a specific, confined site. While discharge outlets from factories and industrial plants are considered point sources, agricultural runoff has yet to be classified as point source pollution so tiling, though coming out of farming lands through a concentrated tile pipe, is still exempt from mandatory regulations on point-source pollution. This gives industrial farms the freedom to dump into Iowa’s rivers.

habitat conservation

A management practice designed to conserve, restore and steward habitat areas for native plants and animals, especially conservation-reliant species ti prevent their extinction, fragmentation or reduction in range.

“We need some kind of mandatory regulation on agricultural runoff. Voluntary efforts are not enough to restore water quality. The good land conservationists in farming are in the minority.”


ROSIE PARTRIDGE
Family Farmer
Wall Lake, IA

EVERYBODY SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT TO CLEAN DRINKING WATER.

by Derek, Lena and Mike

“I believe citizens have responsibilities to their waterways. We, as citizens, ought to support regulations that make sure our water is clean. We need to establish criteria. Right now, we have only one criteria, and that’s just for nitrate levels in drinking water. There’s no rule for phosphorus, there’s no rule for bacteria except on swimming beaches.”


ERV KLAAS
Professor Emeritus of Animal Ecology
Iowa State University
Ames, IA

IOWA CODE CHAPTER 455B

Protects water quality and focuses heavily on setting water quality standards and designated uses and expectations for water. Volunteers help raise awareness and regulate the issues surrounding water and nitrate levels, laid out by the Iowa Code.