As some of you may have heard, Des Moines Water Works is suing three Western Iowa counties (Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun) that lie upstream from Des Moines, Iowa. This action is unprecedented as a utility company has never taken regulatory action against a governance for the quality of the public resources it treats. Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager, of Des Moines Water Works told Iowa Public Radio, “When they build these artificial drainage districts that take water, polluted water, quickly into the Raccoon River, they have the responsibility to us and others as downstream users.”
The national standard for nitrates in the water as set by the Clean Water Act is 10 ppm compared to the 13 ppm that now makes its way through the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers and, ultimately, into the Mississippi River. The EPA set limits on nitrates for a reason; there are numerous negative consequences for human health (e.g. blue baby syndrome) even without considering the disastrous snowballing of problems from depleted water quality. In order to achieve these water standards, Des Moines Water Works had to run their nitrate removal facility for 74 days in 2013 that resulted in about $900,000 in treatment cost and lost revenue. Not only are water treatment plants and taxpayers losing money, but Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the U.S. EPA, reminds us that clean water means a healthy economy for any type of business.
The state of Iowa has a nutrient reduction plan to decrease nitrogen and phosphorus by 45%, but it lacks deadlines to hit its goals and leaves these conservation practices as optional. Farmers who have voluntarily committed to environmentally sustainable farming methods are ahead of the curve; these green practices may be mandatory for now, but some may soon be required if national standards are to be met.
While suing these counties is not ideal, the Board of Water Works Trustees chairman, Graham Gillette, said, “This is the only way that we see that we can engage the government, especially the state of Iowa, in a serious discussion about regulating those pollutants dumped into our source water. After a good rain or snowmelt, with nitrogen and phosphorus covering the agricultural landscape, these excess nutrients are not used to increase crop yield, but rather leave their post in the form of runoff. This nutrient-rich runoff traverses political boundaries to change water chemistry downstream, affecting flora and fauna. In areas where we have high levels of nutrients, algae blooms are formed” (for another related story, look into the algae bloom of Toledo, Ohio).
Nitrates from rivers and streams in the Midwest can have lasting national effects. Every spring there is an annual dead zone roughly the size of Connecticut at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
To address revenue loss with farmers and local businesses, in addition to the compounding contributions to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) are currently assisting thousands of farmers across the country, with many on a waiting list, to implement voluntary programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), among other easements and financial assistance that have been laid out in the Farm Bill.
With the majority of Iowa land dedicated to farming and 500 impaired waterways (53% waterways defined as “poor”), according to the Iowa DNR, it is time to enforce the water standards that are stated in the Clean Water Act. Will the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit lay the groundwork for future rulings when it comes to who is accountable for the quality of our water?
With the result of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit pending, you may be wondering how YOU can help farmers AND drink clean water. Here are 5 things you can do to support those who grow our food while promoting clean water:
1. Contact representatives about the importance of clean water by showing your support for the Clean Water Rule.
2. Reduce the use of lawn fertilizers and dispose of household chemicals properly – tell your friends!
3. Buy local. Support the farmers that have made the switch #4CleanWater
4. Volunteer for citizen science opportunities in your local watershed; this will build baseline data to monitor overall health for all communities.
5. Become a River Citizen and stay up-to-date on River News!
Thanks for all you do in support of a cleaner River,
Jessica Zimmerman, 1 Mississippi Iowa/Illinois Outreach Assistant