Q: Tell us something about Des Moines Water Works. What are you responsible for and how do you do it?
Des Moines Water Works is the regional water utility in the Des Moines metro area, serving approximately 500,000 customers. Des Moines Water Works protects public health and promotes economic development by delivering outstanding quality water affordably in reliable quantities. As CEO and General Manager, I work closely with business, environmental, consumer and agricultural leaders to advocate for better stewardship of water resources and clean water initiatives throughout Central Iowa.
Q: Des Moines Water Works made a lot of headlines by filing a lawsuit against three upstream counties. What lead to that?
Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit in March 2015, against the Boards of Supervisors of 3 northwest Iowa counties in their capacities as trustees of 10 drainage districts, for the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River.
There are hundreds of drainage districts in these three counties. Under Iowa law, drainage districts are responsible for constructing, administering, and maintaining drainage infrastructure. Within each drainage district, a network of pipes and ditches move groundwater and agricultural pollutants quickly into our drinking water sources.
For over year, Des Moines Water Works monitored and tested 72 sample sites in Buena Vista, Sac, and Calhoun Counties, with results showing nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainages districts, 4 times the federally required Safe Drinking Water regulatory limit for nitrate of 10 mg/L.
Q: We hear a lot about all that farmers are doing to protect soil and water by being good stewards. How does the scale of these actions on the ground compare to the scale of the problem you are seeing at your intake pipes?
Yes, earlier this month, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture praised 1,800 farmers taking advantage of $3.5 million in state money to reduce pollutants from their fields. These types of figures divert attention from Iowa’s slide toward accepting environmental mediocrity. Meaningful environmental protection in a state increasingly besieged by dangerous water quality is directly undercut by vastly under-resourced attempts to claim water quality improvements. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy states that $1.3 billion each year for 50 years will be needed for the 45% reduction in nitrate. Well-revered Iowa State University agronomists have stated nitrate reduction will require high levels of implementation of a wide variety of methods…all landowners in Iowa will need to engage in nutrient reduction strategies if we are to reach our water quality goals.
Q: Many in Minnesota are watching the outcome of your lawsuit closely. What are the potential implications in the region and nationally depending on how this goes?
Significant agricultural accountability – the complaint seeks to declare the named drainage districts are “point sources,” not exempt from regulation, and are required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law, just as any other business that discharges in the waters of the State of Iowa. (These other business interests and systems) have been successful nationwide in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge.
Q: There are communities in Minnesota that are facing the challenge of removing upstream pollution from their drinking water sources. Any recommendations or words of wisdom?
Don’t be silent. Talk about source water protection and source of pollution.