The Board of Water Works Trustees of the City of Des Moines voted today to give direction to Des Moines Water Works staff and counsel to proceed with a citizens suit under the Clean Water Act and Iowa Code Chapter 455B, and other relief against the Sac County Board of Supervisors, Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors and Calhoun County Board of Supervisors, in their capacities as trustees of 10 drainage districts, for the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River, and failure to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit in violation of the Clean Water Act.
Des Moines Water Works is a regional water utility providing drinking water to approximately 500,000 Iowans, drawing most of its raw water supply from the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Des Moines Water Works is obligated to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for the maximum contaminate level (MCL) in its finished drinking water. The MCL standard for nitrate is 10 mg/L. The health risks associated with nitrate contamination above MCL include blue baby syndrome and endocrine disruption. In addition to public health risks to drinking water, nitrate pollution also causes the development of hypoxic conditions in public waters, including the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”
Recent upstream water monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites in Sac County has shown nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainages districts. These extraordinarily high nitrate levels correlate with measurements by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), a scientific agency in the United States government at monitoring sites along the Raccoon River.
“Despite the degraded condition of our source water, Des Moines Water Works continues to produce safe drinking water for our customers. Our water remains safe for customers because we have invested millions of dollars of rate payers’ money in developing the capital infrastructure to manage high nitrate levels. Record nitrate concentrations in the Raccoon River have threatened, and continue to threaten, the water supply for our customers who rely on Des Moines Water Works for safe and affordable drinking water,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager, Des Moines Water Works.
“Filing this lawsuit comes after years of effort by Des Moines Water Works officials to participate in initiatives that consider the needs of all Iowans. Unfortunately, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy fails to adequately address the interests of the people DMWW serves,” said Graham Gillette, Board of Water Works Trustees Chair. “The Board of Trustees has a responsibility to safeguard the water supply and protect our ratepayers’ financial interest. If it takes going to court to enforce laws written to protect citizen interests, so be it, and if it means working to develop new methods of problem solving collaboration, even better.”
A major source of nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River watershed is the artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure, such as those created and managed by drainage districts. The drainage systems consist of pipes, ditches and other conduits that are point sources, which transport high concentrations of nitrate quickly by groundwater to the nearest waterway, bypassing natural absorption and denitrification processes that would otherwise protect the watersheds.
“In order for Des Moines Water Works to continue to provide clean and safe drinking water and to protect the state of Iowa and the United States from further environmental and health risks, the discharge of nitrate from drainage districts must be addressed,” said Stowe. “We are not seeking to change agriculture methods, but rather challenging government to better manage and control drainage infrastructure in order to improve water quality within the state. Because drainage districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be recognized and held accountable like any other point source polluter.”
“Point sources” discharging into water ways have permits under the NPDES. NPDES permits have been successful nationwide in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge.
Both the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers experienced extremely high concentrations in the spring and summer of 2013, fall of 2014, and winter of 2015. Nitrate levels above the MCL increases the cost of drinking water treatment for more Des Moines Water Works customers. In 2013, when nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers were at a record high, Des Moines Water Works incurred approximately $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues. On December 4, 2014, the utility began operating the nitrate removal facility continuously for 97 days – unprecedented in the winter months – for a total of $540,000 in operations and additional expenses. Moreover, record high nitrate concentrations will require future capital investments of $76-183 million to remove the pollutant and provide safe drinking water to a growing central Iowa.
A Notice of Intent to Sue was sent by the Board of Water Works Trustees on January 9, 2015 to the three County Board of Supervisors. The required 60 day notification under the citizen suit provision of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly known as the Clean Water Act) and Iowa Code Chapter, communicated the intent of the Board of Water Works Trustees to sue the three Iowa counties for discharge of nitrate into the Raccoon River by point sources without the permits required by law.
Since the filing of the Notice of Intent to Sue, Des Moines Water Works representatives have met with numerous officials and stakeholders, but no means of resolution of the issues has been proposed.
A defense fund has been established to offset costs incurred with the Clean Water Act legal proceedings. Individuals who wish to make a contribution may do so by mailing contributions payable to Des Moines Water Works, 2201 George Flagg Parkway, Des Moines, Iowa 50321.