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Des Moines Water Works files water quality lawsuit


March 18, 2015
By Brandi Cowen

March 18, 2015, Des Moines, IA – Des Moines Water Works has filed a complaint in federal court against drainage districts in three counties over the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River.

The complaint was filed against the Sac County Board of Supervisors, Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors and Calhoun County Board of Supervisors in their capacities as trustees of 10 drainage districts in Iowa. The lawsuit seeks to declare 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 complaint states 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 to comply with the Clean Water Act, including ceasing all discharges of nitrate that are not authorized by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

Des Moines Water Works is also demanding damages to compensate for the harm caused by the drainage districts’ discharge of nitrates, assess civil penalties, and award litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees to Des Moines Water Works.

The utility provides drinking water to approximately 500,000 Iowans, drawing most of its raw water supply from the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Des Moines Water Works is obligated to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for the maximum contaminate level (MCL) in its finished drinking water. The MCL standard for nitrate is 10 mg/L. Health risks associated with nitrate contamination above this level include blue baby syndrome and endocrine disruption.

In addition to public health risks to drinking water, nitrate pollution also causes the development of hypoxic conditions in public waters, including the Gulf of Mexico’s so-called “dead zone.”

Des Moines Water Works contends artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructures, such as those created and managed by drainage districts, are a major source of nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River watershed. Recent upstream water monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites in Sac County has reportedly found nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainage districts.

Nitrate levels above the MCL increase the cost of drinking water treatment for Des Moines Water Works customers. Since the launch of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Des Moines Water Works has experienced two unprecedented nitrate episodes and associated costs for the treatment of the pollutant. In 2013, when nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers reached record highs, Des Moines Water Works incurred approximately $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues. On Dec. 4, 2014, the utility began operating the nitrate removal facility continuously for 97 days – unprecedented in the winter months – for a total of $540,000 in operations and additional expenses.

The utility provider is now actively planning for capital investments of up to $183 million for new denitrification technology to remove the pollutant and continue to provide safe drinking water to residents.

The lawsuit has angered many farmers, some of whom are now talking about boycotting Des Moines, including the Iowa State Fair, as well as shopping malls, state high school athletic tournaments and concerts.