Ag Policy Blog

A New Stream of Clean Water Act Litigation in Iowa

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The Des Moines Water Works has opened a new stream of litigation in the Clean Water Act as the board voted Thursday to sue three northwestern counties in Iowa over agricultural runoff.

The board voted to sue Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties in federal court. Each of the counties is a minimum of 125 miles from Des Moines, but water work officials claim those three counties are the major driving force behind high nitrates that are found in the Des Moines River.

As the Des Moines Register reported, "The lawsuit targets several drainage districts feeding into the North Raccoon River that are managed by the three counties. Weekly samples taken from the river in Sac County since March have shown high concentrations of nitrates, according to officials with the Des Moines utility."

"We're not out there to seek damages," said Graham Gillette, chairman of the waterworks board. "We're really out there to seek this permitting and regulatory process. This isn't about us recouping losses or protecting our individual asset. It's about protecting Iowa waterways."

Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, told the Register that he's unaware of any precedent for this type of dispute, but he said the issue has merit.

"They have some legitimate concerns," Hamilton said.

The full Des Moines Register story can be read at…

The Iowa Soybean Association issued a news release denouncing the litigation.

“Claims by Des Moines Water Works that we have a water quality crisis in Iowa is sensationalistic at best and, at worst, dishonest," said Tom Oswald, president of the soybean association. "The Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Geological Service officials all agree there is not a trend of rising nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. This is backed by an analysis of thousands of water samples from 41 locations in the Raccoon River Watershed from 1999-2014 that found nitrate concentrations decreased by nearly 25 percent due to refinements of cropping systems."

Oswald added, "There is no evidence that the regulatory scheme ultimately sought by Des Moines Water Works will improve water quality as it relates to non-point source issues. There is, however, ample evidence that conservation practices tailored to specific farms and watersheds do. Just last year, 2,400 farmers and land owners invested $22.5 million on conservation practices to prevent soil erosion and improve water quality, of which $13 million came out of farmers’ own pockets."

The Iowa Soybean Association noted the litigation comes just 18 months into Nutrient Reduction Strategy set up to deal with decades of nutrient issues in the state. ISA was one of several farm groups that joined together last year to better promote to farmers practices that would make the nutrient strategy more successful across the state.

“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. The Iowa Soybean Association will continue to extend invitations to Des Moines Water Works and its CEO to be partners in this progress.”

Environmental groups that have long battled farmers in Iowa praised Des Moines Water Works for its decision. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement declared the litigation is the fault of farmers and state officials who have failed to pay heed to the Clean Water Act.

“We’re in this situation today because Farm Bureau and other commodity groups, many of our legislators, our Governor and the Iowa DNR fight back against any attempt to enforce the Clean Water Act for factory farm polluters.” Said Larry Ginter, retired family farmer from Rhodes, Iowa. “Bravo to Bill Stowe and the Des Moines Water Works for taking this powerful step forward to begin cleaning up our water.”

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Don Thompson
1/12/2015 | 8:41 AM CST
It appears Curt, that you will have to learn to play with others, especially if you are also the beneficiary of public dollars.
Curt Zingula
1/10/2015 | 6:57 AM CST
Isn't there something wrong with public works using tax payer dollars to advance environmental agendas?! It's even going on in my county (Linn) where the Conservation Director conducted anti-fracking meetings in county buildings. Give 'em a title and they think they're God!
Curt Zingula
1/9/2015 | 2:09 PM CST
Stowe's drumbeat has been all about the money as he uses that avenue to turn consumers against farmers and assure himself a place in the limelight.