Beyond “Iowa Nice”: Local Impacts of Water Pollution Motivate Urgent Tactics

A lawsuit over how three counties in Iowa should deal with water pollution from their farms underscores an underlying tension between rural and urban Iowans, both of whom take pride in neighborliness and cooperation. That the water utility, Northern District of Iowa, is suing the boards of supervisors in federal court, seems confrontational and “arrogant against rural Iowa” to some. And yet the health of 500,000 Des Moines residents, or nearly one fifth of state’s population, is being endangered by water runoff with excessive nitrates, which can cause serious health problems, especially in infants.

Both sides are frustrated. Although multi-generational farmers argue that they care deeply about the land, this seems cavalier to their urban neighbors, whose children’s health is at stake. While farmers favor a voluntary system of improving water quality, critics say that their incremental changes and anecdotal reports of successes have not been enough. Individual farmers have taken steps to limit nitrate runoff, like reducing tilling and planting cover crops, and argue that they need more time for their programs to work and scale up. But in Des Moines, residents feel more urgency to restore the quality of its drinking supply and resolve the associated health risks. And the water utility, barely able to remove nitrates quickly enough to keep up with demand, has seen its costs skyrocket.

It seems that local leaders, who have a civic responsibility to serve their residents, also have an opportunity to engage rural and urban Iowans to collaborate to solve these problems. It’s time to move from “talking the game to walking the game”.

Conflict Over Soil and Water Quality Puts ‘Iowa Nice’ to a Test

By Mitch Smith | The New York Times | April 18, 2015

Manson, Iowa — The flat, endless acres of black dirt here in northern Iowa will soon be filled with corn and soybean seeds. But as farmers tuned up their tractors and waited for the perfect moment to plant, another topic weighed on their minds: a lawsuit filed in federal court by the state’s largest water utility.

After years of mounting frustration, the utility, Des Moines Water Works, sued the leaders of three rural Iowa counties last month. Too little has been done, the lawsuit says, to prevent nitrates from flowing out of farm fields into the Raccoon River and, eventually, into the drinking water supply for roughly 500,000 Iowans. The suit seeks to make farmers comply withfederal clean-water standards for nitrates that apply to factories and commercial users, and requests unspecified damages.

“It’s very clear to me that traditional, industrial agriculture has no real interest in taking the steps that are necessary to radically change their operations in a way that will protect our drinking water,” said Bill Stowe, the chief executive of Des Moines Water Works. High nitrate runoff, which can result from nitrogen-rich soil and applied fertilizer, places Des Moines’s drinking water in danger of violating federal quality standards, Mr. Stowe said, and increases costs and poses health risks for customers.

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