From the heart of farm-centric Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works (a city department) has filed a lawsuit against three counties contending that drainage ditches that handle water collected by "engineered underground pipes" cause point-source pollution. Those of us in farming circles call those "engineered underground pipes" field or drainage tile. The pollutant is nitrogen - or, in this case, nitrates - a chief life-sustaining element for crop growth.

Like most lawsuits, this Des Moines Water Works versus highly agricultural Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties is all about money. The Raccoon River flows through northwest Iowa's three defending counties and makes its way to Des Moines, where the city's water district draws water for its municipal supply.

As early as 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pressured Des Moines to install a nitrate-removal system to meet a government-mandated drinking water goal of having nitrate levels under 10 milligrams per liter of water. These days, water drawn out of the Raccoon River has been measuring 20 to 30 parts per million with a cost of nearly $7,000 per day to remove the extra nitrates. The combination of an aging facility and growing Des Moines population has once again forced the water district to consider updating its nitrate removal system . . . this time at a potential cost of $100 million. Bill Stowe, the Water Works front man, doesn't believe Des Moines-area residents should foot the bill.

Stowe isn't kidding on that front. Even though the Raccoon River flows through nearby Greene, Dallas and Des Moines' Polk County, only Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties located upstream have been singled out in this litigation. Water Works representatives claim the three counties it chose to "go after" are heavily dominated by farm fields, field tile and drainage ditches from which water samples could be collected via public access.

Agricultural surface water has been exempt from the Clean Water Act because it comes from many sources. This lawsuit essentially aims to single out agriculture for Des Moines' water woes and doesn't consider lawns, golf courses, wildlife and other nitrate sources.

Most involved with this nitrate battle don't expect a quick resolution, as both sides have secured lawyers and appear to be in it for the long haul. In the meantime, all of us who work with crops and livestock can expect more oversight on how we conduct our business.
This editorial appears on page 454 of the July 2015 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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