The Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees voted on Jan. 8, 2015, to issue an intent to sue counties in the Des Moines river and Raccoon river watersheds because of high nitrate levels. The goal of the possible suit is to force Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties to enforce Clean Water Act regulations related to the run-off of nutrients from agricultural. The concern is that the rivers feeding the Des Moines drinking water system can have nitrate levels nearly four times higher than the regulatory standard.
The suit is said to be in the neighborhood of $900,000, which was the added treatment costs incurred by the Des Moines Water Works in 2013. However, the nitrate removal facility needs to be upgraded and costs could range as high as $100 million. According to the Des Moines Water Works CEO, “The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a failure. Since its announcement, we have suffered through record nitrate concentrations in both the summer of 2013 and winter of 2014.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad reacted to the Board’s action by saying, “Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa. I think instead of filing a lawsuit, Des Moines should sit down with the farmers and people who want to do something about it.”
The suit is focused on widespread tile drainage systems that farmers use to drain water from their fields. Although the issue of whether or not tile drains increase the levels of nitrate in streams and rivers is still under study, hydrologist Lori Sprague of the U.S. Geological Survey, indicated that “ …we have observed when there are more tile drains, if you hold everything else constant, here tends to higher nitrate levels in streams.”
The reason the potential suit focuses on tile drainage is that agriculture run-off from fields is exempt from Clean Water Act regulations. The legal strategy is to define the outlets of tile drainage systems as point sources, which can be regulated under the authorities of the Clean Water Act.
A week after the Des Moines Water Works Board voted to issue an intent to sue three counties in the Raccoon Watershed, the city of Cedar Rapids, located about two hours east of Des Moines, announced it was the recipient of $2.0 million in funding from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service through its competitive Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Combined with $2.3 million from 16 project partners, the RCPP funding will be used in the Cedar River watershed to address “… nutrient and water quality challenges.”
In contrast to the legal strategy proposed by Des Moines, Cedar Rapids is following a voluntary, incentives-based strategy to reduce nutrient levels in rivers and streams. However, both strategies face barriers. A major barrier for Des Moines is getting the courts to agree that tile drainage system outlets are point sources. Such a ruling by the courts would have wide-ranging impacts across the country. If one considers using the voluntary approach on a state-wide basis, the public and private costs could be a major barrier. Highlighting the cost issue, Keith Schilling, a hydrologist at the University of Iowa, said: “Three and four million [dollars] here and there sounds like a lot of money, but that’s not enough money to even come close to addressing the problem. It’s going to take $1 billion to make a dent in the problem.”
So there we have it, a tale of two cities and two approaches to addressing agricultural nutrient losses. Perhaps Dickens said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”