Des Moines Water Works files lawsuit against Iowa counties

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 16, 2015 -- Des Moines Water Works filed its anticipated federal lawsuit today against three Iowa counties that could potentially change how states regulate water quality.

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The Water Works board, which voted to move forward with the lawsuit last week, claims upstream drainage districts in the counties send fertilizer and manure from farms into waterways and should be regulated with special permits under the Clean Water Act.

The complaint is filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa against the boards of supervisors of Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun Counties, in their capacities as trustees of the 10 drainage districts. The Water Works board sent a notice of intent to sue on Jan. 9 over the districts' discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River, and lack of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under the Clean Water Act.

The complaint seeks a declaration that the named drainage districts are point sources pollutants, are not exempt from regulation, and are required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law.

“The lawsuit seeks relief from the burdens Des Moines Water Works faces as providers of safe drinking water, and recognition of the role of drainage districts when passing production costs downstream,” said Graham Gillette, chair of the Board of Water Works trustees.

 In 2013, when nitrate levels reached record highs in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, Des Moines Water Works says it incurred approximately $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues. In December 2014, the utility began operating a nitrate removal facility for a total of $540,000 in operations and additional expenses. Additionally, Des Moines Water Works says it is now actively planning for capital investments of $76 million to $183 million for new denitrification technology to remove the pollutant, according to a news release.

Des Moines Water Works demands damages to compensate for the harm caused by the discharge of nitrates, as well as civil penalties, litigation costs and attorney fees.

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The Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Soybean Association and 10 other farm groups released a joint statement last week calling Water Works' decision a "startling disconnect from the scope and complexity of nonpoint water issues." 

Farming and commodity organizations contend the state's farmers are improving their operations to cut down nutrient runoff and that those efforts should be supported. They also argue that the money spent on lawsuits could be better spent on research and to back voluntary conservation initiatives.

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