DES MOINES—”We have a water problem,” Mayor Frank Cownie said at the state convention of the League of Women Voters of Iowa on Saturday.
Like all municipalities, the Des Moines Water Works must comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency standards for maximum contaminant level in water processed and sent into its system. Peak nitrate levels in source waters have taxed the city’s ability to meet its obligations.
The problem is nitrates in the water, however, the bigger problem for Des Moines is nitrate discharge into drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac Counties which feed its source.
“The current denitrification technology is outdated and cannot continue to operate with rising nitrate levels and increased customer demand.” according to the Des Moines Water Works. “Continued high nitrate concentrations will require future capital investments of $76-183 million to remove the pollutant and provide safe drinking water to a growing central Iowa.”
Nitrate runoff is an unrecognized environmental cost of farm operations. The lawsuit filed in the case asserts that the drainage districts named are point sources of nitrate runoff and should be regulated as such.
There is a lot of chatter about the lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works filed to establish a cost to people who use nitrogen fertilizer that contributes to water pollution. Here is their rationale from their website:
- Des Moines Water Works filed a complaint in Federal District Court – Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, on March 16, 2015.
- The complaint seeks to declare the named drainage districts are “point sources,” not exempt from regulation, and are required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law.
- The complaint states that the drainage districts have violated and continue to be in violation of the Clean Water Act and Chapter 455B, Code of Iowa, and demands the drainage districts take all necessary actions, including ceasing all discharges of nitrate that are not authorized by an National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
- In addition, damages are demanded to Des Moines Waters to compensate for the harm caused by the drainage districts unlawful discharge of nitrate, assess civil penalties, and award litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees to Des Moines Water Works as authorized by law.
- Des Moines Water Works’ mission is to provide safe, abundant and affordable water to our customers. Des Moines Water Works is fighting for the protection of customers’ right to safe drinking water. Through this legal process, Des Moines Water Works hopes to reduce long-term health risks and unsustainable economic costs to provide safe drinking water to our customers, via permit and regulation of drainage districts as pollutant sources.
- Continued insistence from state leaders that the voluntary approach of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is working does not give solace to the 500,000 central Iowans who must now pay to remove pollution from their drinking water.
While this lawsuit is specific to Des Moines, there are a lot of unrecognized environmental costs in diverse business operations. Set all the partisan chatter about this issue aside and the fact remains there is a tangible cost, that someone should pay. It is a cost measured in risks to human health, environmental degradation and inadequate financial models in business.
Thanks to the Des Moines Water Works, we can begin to put a dollar figure to it.