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Alan Guebert

For over a year the Des Moines Water Works has been warning every private farmer and public official in Iowa that it would sue anyone or any entity it deemed responsible for the dangerously high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, a key source of the water it delivers to 500,000 people in and around Des Moines.

On Jan. 8, the DMWW board did just that; it voted to sue three northwest Iowa counties because, collectively, they oversee 10 local drainage districts that, the utility claims, are delivering excess nitrates into the Raccoon River.

According to the DMWW, recent water samples from 72 sites in Sac County showed nitrate levels as high as 39.2 milligrams per liter in the groundwater tied to its drainage districts. That’s four times greater than the 10 mg/L that Clean Water Act guidelines considers “safe.”

The day before the vote, January 7, the DMWW reported the nitrate level in water drawn for its customers from the Raccoon, the principle drainage path for more than 2 million acres of west-central Iowa grain and livestock farms, at 14 mg/L.

High nitrate levels occurred 74 days in 2013, claims the DMWW. Each required $4,000 to $7,000 per day “treatment” to make the water safe before it could be sent to the public. That cost, about $900,000 in 2013, prompted the utility to complain and the state to act.

Well, sort of act.

In May 2013 the state implemented the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a program that all but admitted the state’s ag runoff was a growing problem that required joint attention from farmers, local communities and the state.

There were — and are — pitfalls, however.

First, most ag runoff falls under the federal definition of “non-point source” pollution, meaning its source cannot be pinned to one place or one site and is, therefore, exempt from most federal regulations. “Point source” pollution, pollution that can be traced to a place or site, is heavily regulated.

As such, the success of any plan that Iowa, its farmers and its water users might enact to reduce nitrates in public waters relied on everyone working together.

That, so far, hasn’t happened because the May 2013 “Strategy” did not impose mandatory compliance; it was, instead, voluntary. “What’s more,” noted the Jan. 22 Des Moines Register, “the state refuses to even test and monitor how that approach is working.”

It’s not working well.

According to the DMWW, the voluntary, unmonitored “Strategy” has had 18 months to show reductions in nitrate runoff and the nitrates continue to flow into the Raccoon to Des Moines. In late January, the water works said its 25-year-old nitrate treatment equipment would soon need an $80- to $100-million upgrade if the “trend in source water does not reverse.”

Part of the built-in dysfunction of the 2013 Strategy can be traced to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, a self-described “panel of nine citizens who provide policy oversight over Iowa’s environmental protection efforts.” A majority of five members are either farmers, livestock producers or ag biz professionals, giving each an inherent conflict-of-interest in any state rule that affects ag runoff.

All were appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad, a six-term Republican incumbent, who called the threatened lawsuit to fight nitrates in the water he drinks in the Governor’s Mansion the equivalent of “Des Moines declaring war on rural Iowa.”

It’s not war. It is simply the Des Moines Water Works asking a court to assign responsibility for an increasingly expensive, increasingly dangerous public health problem affecting a half million Iowans that the state and its farmers have failed to fix.

Both still can.

Both still should because years of evidence gathered by the U.S. Geological Survey in the three non-metro, heavily ag-based Iowa counties the DMWW plans to sue strongly indicate agriculture as the source of the “non-source” nitrates flowing downstream to Des Moines and its 500,000 water users.

So the choice today is simple: fix the problem now or fix it later. Either way, with or without farmers, it will get fixed.

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The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.

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