Listen: Des Moines Water Works Lawsuit

As part of MPR's “Trouble in the Water” series, MPR’s Clay Masters reports on Des Moines Water Works lawsuit over cleanup of farm runoff…a battle with farmers about who’s responsible for paying for it.

The Des Moines River is one of two rivers the Des Moines Water Works uses for source water for its 500,000 customers. The utility is suing 10 rural Iowa drainage districts, the results of which could shift the costs of filtering farm effluent directly onto rural Iowa and its farmers.

Report is third in an eight-part series.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2016 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Series - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER: Right now here on Morning Edition, the focus is on Iowa, and here's why. A federal lawsuit underway there could subject farmers in Iowa, Minnesota, and throughout the country to broad federal water regulation for the first time. Clay Masters has more.


CLAY MASTERS: I'm standing at a crossroads in rural northwest Iowa's Sac County. Behind me, there's a dry brown farm field. In front of me, there's a galvanized pipe, about as big around as a car tire. Water is gushing out of this pipe and into the drainage ditch. This is a common drainage system that removes excess water from farm fields, but also nitrate. This is a potentially toxic fertilizer byproduct. Two years ago, after a heavy rain, the nitrate levels in this pipe's drainage spiked from harmless to four times the maximum safe level for drinking water.

BILL STOWE: We want regulation on those pipes and what comes out of the pipes.

CLAY MASTERS: This is Bill Stowe, CEO at the Des Moines Water Works, two hours south of that gushing drain pipe. Last year, the utility spent $1.5 million just removing nitrates that make their way from farm field drainage through the watershed to the municipal water system's intake. Stowe is suing boards of supervisors in the counties where he believes some of the nitrates originate.

BILL STOWE: We think that's the only way to get our hands around what we see as a growing threat to public safety and public health by contaminants in the surface waters of the state.

CLAY MASTERS: Nitrates occur naturally, but they are also a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer, which farmers spread on fields by the ton. Nationally, nitrogen use is growing. Nitrate moves from farm fields into both ground and surface drinking water sources. Consuming excessive nitrate degrades the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Too much infant formula contaminated with nitrate can even kill a baby. And Stowe says nitrate concentrations have been the utility's concern for a quarter century.

BILL STOWE: First of all, it's public health business, obviously. You're intaking a commodity that has serious impacts upon your public health. Flint has reminded us of that with a different issue but the same general concern.

CLAY MASTERS: Stowe's utility had to run its expensive nitrate removal equipment for 177 days last year. It was installed in the 1990s and needs tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to keep up with the growing nitrate problem. Ratepayers just saw their bills hike 10%. Stowe says farmers causing the problem should have to pay the costs, not his customers. The lawsuit could lead to a historic change in water regulation and farm economics.

Attorney Mark Ryan is an expert in the Clean Water Act who represented the EPA for more than two decades. He says if the Des Moines Water Works prevails, it could be the first time farmers have been held liable for pollution coming off their fields.

MARK RYAN: They have largely been exempt for the history of the Clean Water Act.

CLAY MASTERS: The Des Moines Water Works is arguing pipes discharging tile drainage are point sources of pollution. That would mean the drainage is subject to federal requirements aimed at preventing harm to water quality and human health. Ryan says, he'd expect the case to work through the courts for years and potentially reach the US Supreme Court. He says, if suddenly, the underground drainage systems known as tile drains are regulated, it could spell trouble for farm country.

MARK RYAN: These tile drains of the Midwest play a very important role in farming and agriculture in keeping the ground dry. And they suddenly had to treat them, I think it would probably make farming in much of Iowa uneconomical, is my guess.

CLAY MASTERS: Tile drainage made farming possible throughout the Midwest. Without it, much of the region's farm fields would be saturated swamp land. Drainage was so important to food production, the federal government subsidized the practice for decades.

COLIN MCCULLOUGH: Do we really want to turn Northwest Iowa into swamp again?

CLAY MASTERS: This is Colin McCullough. He's a lawyer in Sac City, one of the local attorneys representing the 10 drainage districts named in the lawsuit. They reject the idea the nitrates from the 10 districts are a problem for the Des Moines Water Works located 200 miles downstream. Gary Armstrong is an attorney from Storm Lake.

GARY ARMSTRONG: Those 10 drainage districts' contribution to the nitrate levels in Des Moines, where the water is drawn by the Des Moines water works, is 4/10 of 1%. Virtually nothing.

CLAY MASTERS: Still, the threat of subjecting farm runoff to regulation under the Clean Water Act has galvanized agri groups in an all-out effort to combat the lawsuit. Organizations like the Farm Bureau and the Iowa Corn Growers Association have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the defense team. And many individual farmers chafe at the accusations in the lawsuit. Marc Bertness farms in Iowa's Buena Vista County, one of the three counties with drainage districts named in the lawsuit.

MARC BERTNESS: We consider ourselves environmentalists of a sort. Not necessarily tree huggers, but we think you ought to take care of the land.

CLAY MASTERS: Bertness regularly monitors his water quality and is using practices to clean the water that leaves his fields. Bertness says a regulated system would hurt their bottom line.

MARC BERTNESS: Maybe we get a surcharge of $2 an acre on our taxes, or $5 an acre per year for 20 years. The point is, it will ultimately come out of the pockets of the landowners. And that means, eventually, out of the pockets of the tenants.

CLAY MASTERS: Bertness says that could spell economic ruin, with grain prices below break-even for most farmers right now. Many farm groups oppose regulation and argue the way to clean up Iowa's waterways is to be encouraging farmers to plant cover crops or buffer strips, methods to keep more of the nutrients in place and not escaping through the intricate tile system.

They argue regulation would be nearly impossible. But environmental groups say that voluntary approach proved ineffective long ago. Some farmers actually welcomed the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, even those who could not farm without tiling to drain water from their land.

LEE TESDELL: People used to come up here in the olden days and hunt ducks. I mean, this was a slough area.

CLAY MASTERS: Lee Tesdell is a landowner in Central Iowa's Story County. He has numerous tools on his fields to clean his water. And he sees the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit as a positive thing.

LEE TESDELL: It's waking everybody up to what we need to do. It sounds a little adversarial, but how do you get important things to happen? Sometimes you have to be a little more aggressive.

CLAY MASTERS: Meanwhile, back at the Des Moines Water Works, CEO Bill Stowe seems ready for a long fight. He says he's willing to settle if terms would lead to less farm runoff pollution. But so far, he says, the main response he's getting is pushback.

BILL STOWE: The idea that we are going to somehow make huge swaths of Iowa unfarmable is, I think, a sky-is-falling kind of response.

CLAY MASTERS: So the push and pull over how best to treat the water continues while the lawsuit works its way through the courts. There's no clear answer as to how it will shake out. A three-week trial is now scheduled for June of next year. For Minnesota Public Radio News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines, Iowa.


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