Water Works To Sue Neighboring Counties

Des Moines Water Works will file a lawsuit against three counties over high nitrate levels in local waterways.
Water Works To Sue Neighboring Counties

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Des Moines Water Works in Des Moines, Iowa — alarmed by rising nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers — voted to sue three of its neighboring counties.

According to an Associated Press article, it could be one of the first lawsuits of its kind in the U.S. filed by a water utility holding local officials responsible for pollution from farm drainage systems.

“This is the only way that we see that we can engage the government, especially the state of Iowa, in a serious discussion about regulating those pollutants that are dumped into our water source,” says board chairman Graham Gillette in a Des Moines Register article.

Des Moines Water Works is blaming runoff and drainage upstream for what has amounted to almost $1 million annually in costs to run its nitrate removal facility.

“They’re transporting groundwater that is heavily polluted because of agricultural activities,” says Water Works CEO Bill Stowe. “They’re a point-source polluter like a factory or a city stormwater system or a wastewater plant.”

Water Works believes Calhoun, Buena Vista and Sac counties should be held responsible for not doing enough to curtail the pollution. Together, the counties manage seven drainage districts that feed into the North Raccoon River, a primary water source for Des Moines and its almost 500,000 residents.

More than 3,000 similar drainage districts are spread throughout Iowa, a state known for its agricultural heritage. Many of those systems were implemented as a solution for farming on flat land and are more than 100 years old, according to John Torbert, executive director of the Iowa Drainage District Association.

Stowe told The Des Moines Register that recent samples from Sac County waterways were five times higher than the maximum level of 10 mg/L mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The pending lawsuit would be filed in federal court under the U.S. Clean Water Act, which grants regulatory exemptions to nonpoint source discharges including field tile systems on individual farms.

Thursday’s vote triggered a 60-day notice that will be sent to the boards of supervisors in the counties mentioned notifying them of Water Works’ intent to file a lawsuit.

“In 2013 we saw the highest [nitrate] levels we’ve ever seen in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, and this was after a nutrient-reduction strategy was announced,” says Stowe. “What we would want to see is the state and federal government consciously regulating those programs.”

“We foresee a time where we can’t invest enough money to clean the water,” says Gillette.

Additional sources: Des Moines Register


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