The Des Moines Water Works decision to proceed in filing a federal lawsuit against three rural Iowa counties for not regulating farmers’ nitrate runoff from their fields could have far-reaching effects. Changing the way Iowa and probably every other state approaches water quality regulation will be the eventual result if the water works suit is successful.

The water works trustees gave a 60-day warning that it was going to file a lawsuit unless there was action to change the amount of nitrates going into the river water from which the city obtains most of its water. The trustees concluded that neither the state nor counties were making progress to change the situation after they issued the warning. The lawsuit contends drainage district oversight in the counties of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties is not appropriate to protect Raccoon River water quality.

Response to the lawsuit by agricultural organizations has been one of disgust with the water works trustees. As The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) response said, the lawsuit is “unfortunate and will divert resources that could help fund a real solution to Des Moines’ water quality issue.”

TFI agreed with Iowa farming and commodity organizations that claim Iowa farmers are improving their operations to limit nutrient runoff. “Iowa farmers are making progress when it comes to the environment, and have begun implementing changes outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. These efforts are deserving of support and resources. Water quality and nutrients in the environment are part of a complex system, and there is much more we can learn about nutrient cycling and how it is positively impacted by broad adoption of conservation and 4R nutrient stewardship best management practices,” suggested TFI.

Support for the farmers and counties involved in the lawsuit has been limited. The water board heard a lot of public comments supporting how the water should be cleaned up before making its original threat and then again before proceeding to file the lawsuit. The rural population of Iowa is definitely a minority, and references to farmers polluting the environment from non-agricultural organizations have received news coverage. Different Iowa public polls have shown support for lawsuits to force water quality improvements.   

The Mississippi River Collaborative issued its response basically congratulating the water works trustees for filing the lawsuit. In a news release, it quoted the water policy director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “The lawsuit raises important questions about the … failure of Iowa’s all-voluntary nutrient reduction strategy to achieve the reductions necessary for cleaner water,” Susan Heathcote is quoted as saying.

Of course, the national environmental activists are jumping on board, too. The Mississippi River Collaborative contends the EPA has left states to develop and implement their own nutrient reduction strategies and “counting on that to be enough.” But that isn’t enough, according to Ann Alexander, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She reportedly said, “EPA’s relentless avoidance of the problem has resulted in the vast majority of states simply punting on it as well.”

The Des Moines Water Works trustees felt that Iowa regulators and county officials never took the threat of a lawsuit seriously. As for local or state officials’ reactions, there was little response. “Not one responded in any substantive way to the claims we have made in the intent to sue. Frankly, they did not acknowledge the significant threats faced by those we serve,” Graham, Gillette, chairman of the board, was quoted as saying by the Des Moines Register newspaper.

The newspaper also reprinted a quote from the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. “Their (water board) decision to pull back from collaborative partnerships in the Raccoon River watershed and pursue costly litigation does not appropriately recognize both the complexity of improving water quality and the importance of maintaining a productive agriculture in this state.”

Field tiles that drain farmland are being focused on as the culprit that causes nutrients to be flowing into streams that eventually reaches rivers. The water board contends those tiles are like a factory dumping pollution into a river without cleaning it and without a permit. If tiles are found as a major cause and the lawsuit is successful, cease and desist of tile flow would be monumental and a national problem for farmers. This lawsuit definitely isn’t limited to affecting only Iowa farmers and state regulation of water quality.

TFI contends improvements in water quality can be accomplished without the courts being involved especially because research and plans for improved water quality are being formulated. “To this end, available resources should be focused on constructive, science-based solutions for clean water such as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Research Fund. The fund supports U.S. and Canadian projects in partnership with land-grant universities, watershed stakeholders and government agencies, as well as industry initiatives. The North American fertilizer industry has pledged $7 million to fund this multi-year research effort including funds to Iowa State University researchers to assess the production and environmental impacts of multiple nitrogen management practices on drained landscapes. It would be far better if the hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of dollars that will be spent on this lawsuit were directed toward research of this kind,” TFI wrote in their statement.