The move by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) to file a lawsuit against drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of non-point water issues. It also risks slowing the momentum of the state’s nationally recognized strategy to reduce nutrient levels in rivers and streams, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) and other farm groups said last week.
"Rather than litigation, Iowa is much better served when communities and farmers collaborate to improve water quality. We’ve got examples of that all around Iowa," said Craig Hill, IFBF president. "This choice to file a lawsuit is not constructive and, frankly, threatens to delay the conservation and water quality progress that Iowans are making."
Hill noted that research at Iowa State University and other institutions shows that nitrate levels in Iowa rivers are heavily influenced by weather as it interacts with naturally occurring nitrates in the state’s rich, black soils.
Farmer practices, such as applying fertilizer to grow corn, have little influence on the amount of nitrates in streams and actually help reduce nutrient loss by increasing crop yields, he said.
Farmers are taking a very pro-active approach to manage Iowa’s variable conditions by adopting practices, such as cover crops, no-till, stream buffer strips and grassy waterways, in unprecedented numbers, Hills said. "The lawsuit won’t distract them from the collaborative efforts that bring continual improvements to water quality. Progress has been made and continues to be made; this is a long-term process."
Projects sponsored by Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, along with conservation districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, recently received Iowa Water Quality Initiative grants totaling nearly $856,000 for projects in the watershed after applying in early December.
About 20 partners joined the effort, including the Iowa Farm Bureau, other agriculture organizations, institutions of higher education, private industry, and local, state and federal governments. More than $1 million in matching funds were committed to leverage the state’s grant. The DMWW did not partner with the groups for these projects.
The DMWW litigation seeks to force the drainage districts to get Clean Water Act permits for alleged discharges from agricultural drainage tile systems. Bill Stowe, the general manager and CEO of Des Moines Water Works, has sharply criticized the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and has called for mandatory regulations, administered by the federal or state government, on farmers.
Misdirected at farmers
"This lawsuit is misdirected at Iowa agriculture and farmers, who are working to improve water quality in the state," Hill said. "It will do nothing to improve water quality."
The board of trustees of the DMWW in January voted to file a notice of their intent to sue against drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties over nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. In a special meeting on March 10, the board formally voted to file the suit and authorized an initial $250,000 to pay for legal fees.
Hill said the key to progress is the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was launched in 2013 and was developed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, with technical assistance from Iowa State University. It is designed to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields as well as point sources.
Strategy on track
"The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is the right approach because it is based in science and takes all factors into consideration when looking at a watershed," said IFBF’s Hill. "Real progress can only happen when everyone realizes we are all in this together and collaborates to benefit all of Iowa. We need to be able to establish scientifically proven conservation practices in the right places and at the right time to achieve our reduction goals."
The strategy has also been applauded by other groups, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Along with IFBF, the statement reacting to the DMWW lawsuit was signed by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the Iowa Poultry Association, the Iowa Soybean Association, the Iowa State Dairy Association and the Iowa Turkey Federation.
In their comments last week, Water Works officials say rising nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers will soon require an updated water treatment facility in Des Moines that could cost $80 million to $185 million.
Nitrates trending down
However, evidence shows that nutrient levels in the Raccoon River have actually trended steady or down since the 1990s and that the number of times the DMWW has needed to operate its nitrate removal system has declined over time, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau and other farm and agribusiness organizations in written comments to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Those comments were in response to the DMWW’s application to renew its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. In that application, the DMWW is seeking to continue its practice of disposing the nitrates it removes back into the Raccoon River.