Cullen partly wrote about the battle between Des Moines Water Works and the rural northwest Iowa counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to pay for cleaning up nitrate runoff from farms to the Raccoon River, part of the watershed that provides drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents served by the utility. Storm Lake is in Buena Vista County.
The Times also dug into who was paying the counties' legal bills to defend the lawsuit. "The counties refused to say, other than that they would ask their friends to contribute. Somehow Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross got involved, and set up the agricultural legal defense fund for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa," Cullen wrote. The newspaper discovered that the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation was a secret donor for the counties' legal bills, and that discovery helped lead to the AAI bailing out.
Cullen wrote in March 2016, "Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion."
"Everyone knows it’s not the city sewer plant causing the problem. And most of us recognize that this is not just nature at work busily releasing nitrates into the water," he writes. "Ninety-two percent of surface water pollution comes from row crop production—an incontroverted fact from the court case."
"What’s more, the public probably suspects that it should not cost billions of dollars to fix the problem," he writes. "It doesn’t. The solution demands that we quit farming into the ditch and over the fenceline. If we left 10 percent of Iowa’s marginal land fallow the nitrate problem would disappear. Iowa State University research proves it."