Last month, the plaintiffs in the fight to determine if agriculture could be legally defined as a point-source polluter were turned back at the courthouse door.  After some reflection, a new strategy is in play. 

After nearly two years of legal wrangling, Iowa’s largest municipal water provider has decided to forgo an appeal of their landmark lawsuit against drainage districts in three of the state’s counties.  

The Des Moines Water Works sued ten water districts in 2015 alleging runoff from farm ground 150 miles upstream of the capital city was responsible for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. The municipal utility uses the river as its primary source of water for its 500,000 customers. A Federal judge dismissed the suit in March on grounds that agricultural drainage districts are immune from lawsuits.

Officials with the Des Moines Water Works have chosen instead to wait and see if voluntary water quality initiatives reduce nitrate levels in the Raccoon River.

Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works: “To producers upstream, we certainly understand that they have to make a living. We want them to be successful in making a living but not in pushing their costs and a public health concern downstream to us.”

Des Moines Water Works operates one of the largest nitrate removal systems in the world.  In 2015, the tab for operating the plant hit $1.2 million.  

Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works: “We’re at a point now where we can say pretty cleanly, “You know, you’ve said that, now walk the talk. Now show us that this voluntary process really can show measurable sustained improvements”

Many in the agriculture community have celebrated the dismissal, relieved they will no longer face the potential costs associated with being defined as a point source polluter.

Iowa Farm Bureau members are pleased that continued, measurable conservation progress can continue, without the distraction of litigation.  The dismissal of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit means that focus should return to collaborative approaches to improving water quality. 

But Stowe remains skeptical.

Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works: “Realistically, we believe the voluntary principles underlying the nutrient reduction strategy are a non-starter. Counting numbers of acres of cover crops, a negligible number incidentally from our vantage compared to 22 million tillable acres, isn’t the measure. The measure should be water quality, what’s happening in the rivers.”

For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs.

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