In the early spring of 2014, two lab workers for the Des Moines Water Works climbed into a truck and drove north. They pulled over on Highway 20 where the road crosses Cedar Creek, made their way to the water’s edge, dunked a cup attached to a pole, then poured the contents into a container. It was the first of 40 outings over the next nine months to collect samples from creeks, ditches, and drainage outlets—72 locations in all—amid the corn and soybean fields north of Des Moines.
An analysis of the samples confirmed what the utility’s employees had long suspected: Nitrate from farm fields was flowing into the Raccoon River, one of the primary sources of drinking water for Des Moines. A form of nitrogen, nitrate is a source of nourishment for plants. Farmers apply it to crops through fertilizer or animal manure. Too much nitrate in drinking water can cause health problems, including a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants called blue-baby syndrome.
In March 2015 the Water Works filed a federal lawsuit against the boards of county supervisors in three upstream counties—Buena Vista, Calhoun, and Sac—accusing them of polluting the water supply. The suit seeks to regulate some farm drainage and to recoup the millions the utility has spent filtering nitrate from its water.
Iowa is the nation’s second-largest producer of agricultural commodities after California. So it’s no surprise that the water utility’s lawsuit has unleashed a furious backlash from farm groups and their political supporters, all the way up to Governor Terry Branstad, who’s criticized Des Moines for declaring “war on rural Iowa.” William Stowe, the silver-maned, Harley-Davidson-driving chief executive officer and general manager of the Water Works, says he’s been the target of death threats as well as television ads that blast him for wasting taxpayers’ money on a frivolous lawsuit. “We were accused of being everything but al-Qaeda members by politicians in the state,” Stowe says. “I’m the black beast, the bête noire.”
Nutrient pollution of waterways is a problem that extends well beyond Iowa. In Lake Erie in 2014, a toxic algal bloom—caused by runoff from farms and septic systems plus warmer temperatures, among other factors—contaminated Toledo’s water supply. In an area of the Gulf of Mexico adjacent to the Mississippi River, scientists have identified an approximately 6,500-square-mile dead zone where oxygen levels are too low to support marine life. The federal government says agricultural sources are the main culprit.
In 1991 the Des Moines Water Works sank about $4 million into an ion exchange facility to remove nitrate from the drinking water supply, the lawsuit says. The plant is designed to operate on an as-needed basis, at a cost of up to $7,000 per day. From 1995 to 2014, nitrate loads in the Raccoon River, near the Des Moines Water Works’ intake, exceeded 10 milligrams per liter—the maximum level the federal government allows—24 percent of the time. The problem has gotten worse in the past few years. In 2015, for instance, the nitrate removal plant operated a record 177 days. The Water Works plans to spend roughly $80 million to upgrade and expand the facility.
The utility’s lawsuit attacks a type of farmland embedded with “tiles,” which provide artificial drainage for soggy soils that normally wouldn’t be good for cultivation. About a quarter of Iowa is drained, and those former wetlands are among the most productive agricultural areas in the world. The suit alleges that drainage tiles accelerate the migration of groundwater—and nitrate—into streams and rivers. Therefore, it alleges, 10 so-called drainage districts, state-created bodies that fund the construction and maintenance of drainage infrastructure by levying assessments on property owners, should be held accountable. The Water Works demands that the districts, which are overseen by county boards of supervisors, should be subject to the same kind of regulation as factories and sewage treatment plants.
In their response to the complaint, defense lawyers argue that drainage districts don’t control what runs through drainage tiles, nor can they be sued for damages given their limited functions. “All we are is a facilitator to take that water and get it off the ground,” says Colin McCullough, who represents the supervisors in Sac County. He argues that nitrate from Sac County is almost entirely diluted by the time it reaches Des Moines. The trial is set for August, and U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to rule on whether drainage districts are immune from legal claims seeking damages.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey says voluntary efforts to curb nitrate contamination are in the beginning stages and will ultimately work. “I just think we are going to solve this by working together,” he says, adding that more regulation could open a Pandora’s box. “It’s hard for me to see where the regulation and the lawsuits stop.”
Regardless of the outcome, the lawsuit has had the positive effect of pushing the debate over water quality onto the state’s agenda, says Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines: “It’s really changed the trajectory on this issue.” In January, Governor Branstad proposed using sales tax revenue to vastly increase spending on water quality.
For his part, Stowe says he hasn’t enjoyed the negative attention. But then again, he claims as one of his greatest influences a legendary rebel: the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who placed the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe. “Industrial ag is hoping for a knockout,” Stowe says, referring to the opponents of his lawsuit. “What we are looking for is serious accountability and recognition that this is a public health issue that will not go away based on a voluntary program.”
The bottom line: Des Moines’s water utility is suing upstream counties to recoup the $7,000 per day it sometimes spends to filter out nitrate.