The board of the Des Moines, Iowa, public water supply has approved filing a lawsuit against the supervisors of three northwest Iowa counties to force farmers in those counties to reduce the nutrient runoff, mainly nitrates, that flow into the Raccoon River, a main source of water processed for drinking in the state’s largest city.

A public comment session was conducted before the board voted, and most of the speakers agreed that a lawsuit was the answer to force action to reduce pollution and nitrates coming from Iowa farmland.

The action of a lawsuit was justified as a way to force action instead of waiting any longer for farmers along the drainage districts feeding into the North Raccoon River to voluntarily reduce runoff with more responsible fertilizer and conservation methods. The lawsuit would be filed in federal court under the U.S. Clean Water Act.

“After a long discussion and realistic data collection for the entire year of 2014 (where) we have been in northern Iowa with our personnel testing water that has been discharged from drainage districts, largely in Sac County, we found that they are significant polluters to the Raccoon River. From that and our discussion with the board, the decision was made last night to move forward with providing a notice of intent to sue with the hope that counties, the state of Iowa and the Department of Natural Resources will step forward with a very principled way to move us forward to water quality. If they are unsuccessful in doing that then we will move forward with our lawsuit in federal court,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of Des Moines Water Works, Feb. 9, in talking to Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio.

The board contends the threat of a lawsuit is not to seek damages but to have permitting and regulatory processes enforced so that there won’t be exceptional costs to the citizens of Des Moines in the future.

Recent water sampling has shown some waterways flowing with five times higher than maximum levels allowable for drinking water; therefore, the water works utility has had to reduce the nitrate level with a denitrification facility at a cost of roughly $4,000 per day, as reported by the Des Moines Register newspaper.

Stowe claims waiting for voluntary solutions to nutrient pollution has not worked. He said 15 years of waiting hasn’t accomplished what is necessary, and the state is at a crisis situation in trying to provide clean drinking water.

Opposite Stowe’s position is the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). The president of the association, Tom Oswald of Cleghorn, issued a strong statement against the water board action. “Claims by Des Moines Water Works that we have a water quality crisis in Iowa is sensationalistic at best and, at worst, dishonest,” he said.

“The Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Geological Service offices all agree that 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,” he went on to note.

Cleghorn claims, “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.”

It was pointed out that the ISA has worked to increase awareness of nutrient runoff issues, and its farmer members have worked with cost-share funding provided by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to increase the use of cover crops, bioreactors, buffer strips, gated tile systems and other practices that have a positive impact on water quality.

“The idea that there is no crisis (and) give us more time—that is a stall tactic. We need to get down now to specific improvements that they are willing to make. If they are not willing to make (them) then we will see them in federal court,” said Stowe.

Stowe further admitted that the end game is for enforcement of regulations and permitting because 90 percent of the pollution can be tracked to agricultural operations and only 10 percent to non-point pollution such as municipalities.