Des Moines Sets Nitrate Removal Record; Continues With Lawsuit

Iowa lawsuit requiring rural drainage districts to obtain nitrate discharge permits could have nationwide implications for utilities

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Utilities nationwide could ultimately pay a higher price for safe drinking water if feuding factions in Iowa are unable to reach a compromise on nitrate contamination. A lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against Sac, Buena, Vista and Calhoun counties claims the 10 drainage districts they represent should not be exempt from regulation and be required to obtain a discharge permit like sewer and stormwater utilities, which make up 8 percent of the nutrient problem.

The complaint, filed March 16 in Federal District Court – Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, states the drainage districts violated and continue to be in violation of the Clean Water Act and Chapter 455B, Code of Iowa, and demands all necessary action be taken, including ceasing all discharge of nitrate not authorized by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

Under Iowa law, drainage districts are responsible for constructing, administering and maintaining infrastructure, which convey groundwater and farm pollutants.

Monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites within the three counties showed nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L – four times the federally required safe drinking water limit of 10 mg/L. The utility maintains in its lawsuit that since the districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be held accountable like other point-source contributors.

While both sides of the argument agree nitrates in the water supply are a problem, agricultural groups, such as the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, favor voluntary compliance, as outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy of 2013. Strict regulation, opponents say, would create an economic hardship for the state known for its nutrient-rich soil and abundance of corn and soybeans.

Established by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University, the strategy is designed to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities, and nonpoint sources, including farm field and urban areas, in a scientific, reasonable and cost-effective manner.

But it’s not enough, says Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works CEO.

Nitrate levels above the maximum contaminant level already have increased the cost of drinking water treatment for Des Moines Water Works customers. In 2013, when nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers reached record highs, the utility incurred about $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues. Costs this year could easily exceed that amount. Current nitrate levels are 15.31 mg/L in the Raccoon River and 16.28 mg/L in the Des Moines River, according to DMWW, which serves about 500,000 customers in the metro area and sells water to neighboring cities.

The utility recently announced it set a record for nitrate-removal, running its nitrate removal facility for 111 days this year. The previous record of 109 days was set in 1999.

Graham Gillette, chairman of the water works board of trustees, says while the lawsuit will have some expense, it won’t compare to the $183 million water treatment facility ratepayers might be asked to fund if a solution can’t be found.


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