Iowa city facing challenges downstream of agriculture

Iowa city facing challenges downstream of agriculture

Posted November 23, 2015
You’ve probably seen it in the news: Des Moines Water Works is suing three upstream drainage districts over costs to remove nitrates from drinking water. At the root of the lawsuit is who should be responsible for the pollution – those who have to clean it up downstream or those who can prevent it upstream.

Freshwater Society recently hosted Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, as part of the Moos Speaker Series. Lectures in St. Paul and Mankato brought record attendance and a lively discussion.

It costs more than $1 million a year for Des Moines Water Works to denitrify its water to meet federal drinking water standards. A new denitrification facility, estimated to cost between $76 million and $183 million, may be needed if nitrate trends continue to climb.

The utility is suing three Iowa drainage districts saying they need Clean Water Act permits for the nitrate they discharge into the river. If the lawsuit is successful, the outlets of the public drainage ditches will be “point sources,” and required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law.

“No other business besides ag can run a pipe without regulation to a water of the state,” Stowe said.

The details of what it means for drainage districts to get discharge permits will be worked out down the road. However, they will likely parallel other permitted industries. The drainage districts will continue to operate, but they will need to monitor contaminant levels, and limit how much pollution they discharge. The implementation timeline for either can vary depending on practicality.

“We don’t want to bankrupt agriculture. We want to take the cost of taking out the nitrate off our customers and put it back on the people benefiting from it,” he said. “This not an issue that’s going to go away with volunteerism.”

Watch Mr. Stowe’s presentation online.

——- Minnesota River Weekly Update; November 17, 2015 ——