Monday, April 20, 2015

Iowa farmers ask water utility for more time to improve voluntary methods of reducing pollution

The urban vs. rural battle in Iowa over who is to blame for nitrates that have polluted the water for 500,000 residents led the Des Moines Water Works last month to file a lawsuit against northwestern counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to make farmers comply with federal clean-water standards that apply to factories and commercial users.

The main point of contention is that Des Moines Water Works wants to hold farmers to strict federal water quality standards, while farmers and agricultural groups favor a voluntary system, Mitch Smith reports for The New York Times. (Mother Jones graphic)

"Last year, months before the lawsuit was filed, the state associations for corn, soybean and pork producers formed the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, which bills itself as a farmer-led effort to improve water quality," Smith writes. "The group’s executive director, Sean McMahon, said that many farmers were eager to employ conservation practices but that education and time were needed to see more results. Money, he said, would be better spent on outreach and cost-sharing programs than on lawyers for the lawsuit."

Farmers like Brent Johnson said he and his neighbors have already begun taking voluntary measures to improve the situation, Smith writes. "He said he feared that the lawsuit, if successful, would add a regulatory burden just as many farmers were making voluntary changes." Johnson told Smith, “That’s not healthy for agriculture, I don’t think, to take the voluntary out."

But Bill Stowe, the chief executive of Des Moines Water Works, "said years of encouraging changes through voluntary programs had simply not brought about significant results," Smith writes. "Nitrate levels in the Raccoon River remain stubbornly high, which required the utility to run its nitrate removal facilities for three months last winter, a rarity. In 2013, he said, Des Moines was barely able to remove nitrates quickly enough to keep up with demand and nearly violated federal regulations. Just last Thursday, the utility turned its nitrate removal tanks back on, citing high levels of runoff upstream." (Read more)

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