The public utility that provides drinking water to a half-million customers in central Iowa has turned to the courts for a remedy for water pollution that the legislative and executive branches of Iowa government have failed to deliver.
This lawsuit could profoundly redefine federal and state regulation of water quality, not just in Iowa but in all states where water quality has deteriorated in large part because of the use of chemical fertilizers by industrial-scale agriculture. The problem for the Water Works is high levels of nitrate from fertilizer, which poses health threats to humans and exceeds federal drinking water limits.
If the lawsuit proceeds, the Water Works would be asking a federal court to declare that emissions from the drainage districts managed by the three named counties fall under the definition of "point sources" under the federal Clean Water Act. If the court so ruled, these drainage districts would have to obtain permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and meet federal standards for what they dump into the rivers.
These are standards that must be met by other point-source polluters, including municipal sewage treatment plants and factories that send waste directly into waterways. Pollution from agricultural land, however, is defined as non-point source and by law is exempt from regulation by the EPA. This lawsuit could change that.
After years of kicking this can down the road with excuses and vague unproven promises of action, it is high time this issue is confronted head-on.
If Iowa farmers and state officials are serious when they say they are determined to clean up the state's water, then they have nothing to fear from a lawsuit that aims to make sure the steps they are taking are having a measurable effect. Farmers who are not serious about clean water are the only ones who have reason to fear a lawsuit.
The lawsuit could change the terms of the debate about the source of water pollution from agricultural land. The source of the problem is often attributed to runoff, as storm water sheets off the top of fields. The Water Works argues, however, that the problem is deeper in the soil, in the drainage tiles buried several feet below the surface, which carry off subsoil moisture at the plants' root zone.
These underground drainage systems, which have existed across Iowa since the state's early settlement, are concentrated in north-central Iowa. Drainage tiles funnel subsoil moisture to buried pipe, then to ditches or streams and then to the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. Eventually this water makes it to the intake pipes at the Water Works treatment plants in Des Moines.
Thus, this plumbing system is a direct pipeline from fields to rivers, and it carries heavy loads of nitrate that is not absorbed by the corn or soybean plants or otherwise filtered through the soil. If it ultimately files the lawsuit, the Water Works will argue that this is a point source and should be regulated by the EPA.
High nitrate levels represent health and financial challenges for the Des Moines Water Works. To meet federal drinking water regulations, the utility must remove nitrate when concentrations exceed federal standards. That means operating the nitrate-removal facility at a cost of more than $7,000 a day, no small expense for a utility with an annual operating budget of $37 million. If nothing is done, Water Works officials say, that aging facility must be replaced at a cost of possibly $100 million. Ratepayers will pay more, Water Works officials warn.
There are thousands of county-regulated drainage districts in the Des Moines and Raccoon watersheds. The Water Works chose the three counties that would be named in the lawsuit — Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista — because drainage districts they regulate happen to be dumping water into waterways at points monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey. Based on recent samples at those points, nitrate levels measure as much as four times above the federal limit for drinking water.
State leaders, including Gov. Terry Branstad and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and leaders of farm organizations reacted with horror at the very idea of a lawsuit. They say the Des Moines utility should acknowledge progress on improved conservation practices and give them time to have an effect.
These leaders also point to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was created two years ago in response to pressure from federal officials concerned about excess nutrients creating the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The trouble is that strategy relies entirely on voluntary action by farmers and does not require precise measures of whether those actions work. Iowa will have to invest billions of dollars in conservation projects — much of which will come at public expense. Yet, without precise water quality standards and monitoring, there is no way to know if those investments are producing meaningful results. The growing nitrate levels in water coming downriver toward Des Moines suggest not.
Iowa agricultural leaders say Des Moines Water Works officials should have discussed alternatives before threatening to sue. It's not too late for that, however, and that is why the utility was required to give the targeted counties an opportunity to respond within 60 days.
Iowa political and agricultural leaders should offer to sit down with the Water Works and state and local officials throughout the Des Moines and Raccoon watersheds to map out a plan for reducing nitrate levels. The Water Works should accept a good-faith offer and postpone suing while a plan of action is created.
That plan should focus on a broad spectrum of solutions, including more precise fertilizer application and restoring wetlands or installing bioreactors to filter nitrate. That plan should set specific goals, timetables and water-quality standards. And farmers should be prepared to have water sampled wherever drainage district pipes emerge from the ground. A logical source of money for these projects would be raising the state sales tax for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Trust Fund.
If agricultural interests are not willing to pursue these alternatives, they should be prepared to take their chances in court and a judge's ruling that says a pipe emerging from farm fields carrying pollution is no different from a pipe emerging from a factory or a city sewage-treatment plant.
Quad-City Times. Jan. 25, 2015.
Let legislators restore local school control
Thanks goodness bills introduced this week will force an Iowa legislative discussion of an executive branch power grab from local school boards.
On Wednesday, Iowa's Department of Education reversed its long-standing practice of letting school boards set their own start dates. It succumbed to pressure from Gov. Terry Branstad and a few others to keep Iowa schoolchildren out of school and available for August vacations and the state fair, affirming that executive branch bureaucrats know better than parents and school board members how to educate Iowa students.
What other conclusion could be reached?
The education department's new rules effectively eliminate legal waivers to an old Iowa law that says this about the start of school: ".school shall begin no sooner than a day during the calendar week in which the first day of September falls but no later than the first Monday in December. However, if the first day of September falls on a Sunday, school may begin on a day during the calendar week which immediately precedes the first day of September."
That's right, state law allows school start as late as the first Monday in December, a ridiculous practice no one has attempted in Iowa. In fact, all but two of Iowa's school districts chose start dates earlier than the state law suggests. In every instance in the past, the Department of Education allowed those early starts.
Now, Iowa's Department of Education believes differently. So with policy interpretation — not legislation — the department grabs control of local schools. This elevation of appointed bureaucrats over locally elected board members is un-American, un-Iowan and extremely un-Republican.
This new policy allows exceptions only if a local district proves to the bureaucrats that a September start date causes, "significant negative educational impact."
Of course it does. That's why elected school board majorities in all but two of Iowa's 338 districts publicly decided that August start dates work best for students, parents, teachers, coaches, athletics, academics and all of the other local interests.