Des Moines water supplier to sue counties over nitrates

Farm Forum

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Des Moines Water Works board voted on Jan. 8 to sue three northern Iowa counties, alleging that they are responsible for the high nitrate levels in the rivers the utility uses for source water.

The five-member board will send a notice of intent to sue to Calhoun, Buena Vista and Sac counties on Jan. 9, Chairman Graham Gillette said on Jan. 8. The notice will be sent to county supervisors in each county. The board also will notify state officials the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its plans.

“We are considering this action because nitrate levels in our rivers have continued to go up over a long period of time, over a decade,” Gillette said. “We feel we have a responsibility to our customers and others to seek solutions.”

The notice of intent to sue is a process outlined in the federal Clean Water Act. It requires a notification of intentions to sue 60 days prior to the lawsuit being filed in federal court.

Officials in three counties could not immediately be reached late on Jan. 8.

The counties oversee 10 drainage districts north of Des Moines. Drainage districts help move water out of farm fields so they can be more agriculturally productive, but the water can carry nitrate and phosphorous leftover from manure and fertilizer unused by crops.

The lawsuit will claim the drainage districts are no different than city wastewater treatment plants or factories in that they discharge pollutants into the Raccoon River. It will also claim that the counties should be subject to heightened regulatory oversight.

Des Moines Water Works staff gathered 72 water samples in Sac County that indicated nitrate levels as high as 39.2 milligrams per liter in groundwater discharged by drainage districts, according to a news release. That’s nearly four times the limit of 10 milligrams per liter considered by the EPA to be safe to drink. Anything above that level can be deadly to infants younger than 6 months because the chemical can reduce the amount of oxygen carried in their blood, causing a condition called Blue Baby syndrome which can be fatal, the EPA has said.

Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said he had to turn on costly equipment in early December to remove nitrates from the water to keep it under the EPA limit and he’s concerned about the increased cost to his customers and his ability to keep the water in the safe range.

Farm groups have said a lawsuit won’t help solve the problem.

“Iowa farmers are committed to providing the best water possible for use by Des Moines Water Works. We encourage the entity and its CEO to abandon the political posturing in favor of pragmatic, workable and sensible activities that will truly have a positive impact on environmental performance and water quality,” Iowa Soybean Association President Tom Oswald said in a statement on Jan. 8.

He said that nitrate levels in the Raccoon River are not increasing.