The City of Des Moines, Iowa has given formal notice that it intends to sue three upstream counties discharging water with high nitrate concentrations.  At issue is the fact that the Des Moines Water Works spends roughly $4,000 a day to operate a specialized denitrification facility.  Water Works officials say it is pretty clear that the nitrates come from farming operations.  However, this will probably be one of the issues litigated in the suit.  In this area of Iowa, runoff from these farms run into streams through a system of underground tile pipes, known as drainage districts, which are managed by the three county governments in question.  There are more than 3,000 similar drainage districts in Iowa.  The CEO of the Water Works says that organized drainage districts shouldn’t be exempt from water quality regulations and that he hopes to see the state and federal government step in to regulate these programs.  A big issue in the case will be fought over the fact that the Clean Water Act, the authority under which the lawsuit will be filed, exempts nonpoint source discharges such as tile systems on individual farms.

Pretty much everyone agrees that high nitrate concentrations are a problem.  The disagreement comes over where the high levels of nitrate are coming from and who should pick up the tab to fix the issue.  Farmers generally control runoff using effective best management practices (BMPs) such as sediment-trapping ponds, created wetlands, or cover crops.  Usually, BMPs are not difficult to install, but can be expensive and time-consuming to maintain.  In addition, any land lost means less area for agricultural production.  Farmers have generally voluntarily installed BMPs, and these efforts are usually much more effective and can be less painful than changes mandated by litigation.

In the end, the Des Moines Water Works sued with the thought that current practices drainage districts and farmers the were costing his facility too much money.  Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of the Water Works said that “we are seeing the public water supply directly risked by high nitrate concentrations.” In regards to the three drainage districts in question, Stowe said that “we need to get down to specific steps that they need to take. If they aren’t willing, we’ll see them in federal court.”  If the DMWW prevails, implementation of the Clean Water Act as it pertains to agriculture will change forever.