Iowa’s largest water utility may soon file a lawsuit challenging the state’s voluntary approach to dealing with farm fertilizer run-off.
“There aren’t voluntary regulations on air traffic control or speed limits. When it comes to public safety, voluntarism simply doesn’t work and those of us who are in the business of protecting the natural resources and public safety and health of this state ultimately have not found any kind of comfort through legislative action in Iowa,” says Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works. “All of us I’m confident who are serious about it and have the resources are looking at legal action.”
The Des Moines Water Works gets the water for its quarter of a million customers from the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers and nitrate levels have been at unacceptable levels in both rivers since September. That has forced additional treatment of the water to make it safe to drink — an extra cost for Stowe’s customers.
“We’re down to a point where a legal challenge seems to be the only way in which we’re going to get policy makers off the mantra that voluntararism environmentalism will move us forward,” Stowe says.
Stowe argues polluters should be held accountable, whether they’re in the city or the country.
“We have industrial agriculture which discharges into the waters of the state in unregulated fashion,” Stowe says, “and if you live in a suburb or a small town or certainly a city, you’re heavily regulated.”
The Des Moines Water Works board of directors is scheduled to meet Thursday and a decision about legal action against the state could be made at that meeting.
Three of the state’s agricultural groups formed a new alliance this summer, hoping to address growing public concern about water quality issues. The groups are seeking more public and private financing for farmers who build earthen barriers or plant buffer strips to keep fertilizer from running off into waterways. The group also hopes to “dramatically accelerate” farmers’ voluntary efforts to reduce run-off. Alliance members say a “regulatory scheme” won’t “significantly improve water quality.”
Other groups, like Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, have been pressuring the federal government to step in and regulate large-scale livestock facilities which produce the manure that’s spread as fertilizer on many Iowa fields.