Des Moines Water Works to File Lawsuit

The Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees unanimously voted on March 10 to pursue a federal lawsuit against drainage districts in three Iowa counties.  The decision follows the Trustees’ approval in January of sending a 60-day intent-to-sue notice to the 10 drainage districts in Buena Vista, Crawford and Sac counties.

“Drainage districts are a source of high nitrate concentration in our water supply and the Sac County Board of Supervisors have failed to take any meaningful action to protect downstream users from unsafe levels of nitrate introduced into the Raccoon River,” Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager, Des Moines Water Works said in January. “Des Moines Water Works is taking this decisive action to underscore that the degraded condition of our state’s source waters is a very real problem, not just to Des Moines Water Works, but to the 500,000 customers we serve, as well as to Iowans generally who have a right of use and enjoyment of the water commonwealth of our State.”

Water Works employees monitored 72 sample sites in the three counties that indicated nitrate levels four times the federally required Safe Drinking Water regulatory limit. The public utility is required to provide safe drinking water to prevent potential health problems.  Because of the pollution in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, the source of Des Moines Water Works’ drinking water, the utility is concerned that it will need to invest $80 million to $100 million in new denitrification facilities.  The current facility has been operated since December 4, 2014 to filter out the pollutants from drinking water.

In 2012, Iowa unveiled its Nutrient Reduction Strategy intended to reduce the amount of nutrients voluntary strategy.  The strategy’s framework was the result of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa State University and other partners.

“Collaboration has been and will continue to be the most effective path forward for improving water quality in Iowa,” wrote Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey in a guest editorial published in The Des Moines Register two days before the Des Moines Water Works Trustees’ vote.

Voluntary compliance historically has not worked.  Sierra Club has little faith that the adopted Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy will prove beneficial enough to make our water as clean as it can be.

Bill Stowe agrees.

“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a failure,” Stowe added in January. “Since its announcement, we have suffered through record nitrate concentrations in both the summer of 2013 and winter of 2014. It is simply not a credible approach to protect the public health of Iowans who rely on safe drinking water every day. We can no longer rely on voluntarism, rhetoric, and speculation to protect the waters of our state.”

Although Gov. Terry Branstad had not weighed in of the decision to move forward with the lawsuit as of this writing, he agrees with Northey that a collaborative approach is the best strategy. 

“Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa,” he told The Des Moines Register editors and reporters when asked in January if he thought rural Iowans were going to war with Des Moines. “I think instead of filing a lawsuit, Des Moines should sit down with the farmers and people who want to do something about it."

Iowans want clean water and they would prefer not to have to wait years for the voluntary approach.

The Des Moines Register polled more than 800 adult Iowans in February and found that a majority of Iowans (63 percent) support the Water Works lawsuit while less than one quarter of respondents (23 percent) disagreed that a lawsuit was the right approach.

Published March 2015