Last week, Des Moines Water Works’ Board of Trustees voted to issue a notice of intent to sue the Board of Supervisors in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties “in their role as governing authority for 10 drainage districts that are discharging pollutants into the Raccoon River,” which threaten Des Moines’ drinking water.
Why should no one be surprised by Des Moines Water Works going to court? It is because the Governor and his administration have failed to act.
The new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) was hailed as a promising effort to improve Iowa water quality by reducing nutrient pollution from the state by about half. Research behind the strategy showed that 90 percent of the nitrate pollution coming from Iowa came from nonpoint sources, mainly agriculture.
Despite this, state policy was to require cities and towns and industries to reduce their contribution to the nutrient pollution — but to let agriculture producers do whatever they wanted. For them reducing the pollution was voluntary.
An Iowa Policy Project report last July demonstrated the shortcomings of a voluntary approach and suggested a few ways to at least give the new strategy a chance. Had these suggestions been adopted maybe the Des Moines water utility would not have been forced to go to court. The following are what the report found as shortcomings of the NRS:
Insufficient funding — The year the NRS was adopted the Legislature responded with more than $20 million of new funding to support farmers who wanted to introduce new methods to reduce their pollution. In a bipartisan effort, legislators agreed to improve spending again in 2014. However, Governor Terry Branstad vetoed $11 million in similar funding and another $9 million in REAP natural resources and recreation funding — 20 percent of which would have gone to efforts to reduce soil loss that contributes to pollution of our rivers.
Insufficient monitoring — The state has supported more than a dozen efforts by local producers and ag businesses to work to improve soil and water protection practices in their own small section of a stream. This is a wonderful opportunity to do water testing to see if the new emphasis is doing any good. Yet, monitoring is not required for this expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
Pick two — The Iowa Soybean Association, the one commodity group that seems to take an interest in improving water quality, had supported six examples of methods to improve water quality, such as grassed waterways in fields and planting cover crops to follow corn and soybean crops. Our report suggested that each farmer voluntarily adopt any two of these measures. Not all measures would necessarily be best for each producer but two surely would work. We would let farmers decide which research-backed approaches to use.
Set benchmarks and a timeline — There is no timeline for the NRS to accomplish its goal of reducing nutrient pollution by nearly half. The Water Resources Coordinating Council, a voluntary citizen group that is to ride herd on the NRS, has never been allowed to vote on a timeline. Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture is not interested in setting dates.
Will it take 100 years to accomplish the task? We don’t know. And Des Moines Water Works, standing up for all of Iowa, is reminding us all that we cannot wait.
David Osterberg, co-founder of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, is a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.