May 16, 2013

Customers Pay When Others Pollute

In response to Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s environmental policy adviser, Rick Robinson’s “State Rules Wouldn’t Fix Nitrates” letter to The Des Moines Register on May 13.

Nitrate Removal FacilityThanks to a capital investment made years ago and the dedicated work of our employees Des Moines Water Works continues to meet the needs of the 500,000 customers in the twenty communities we serve. However, the extreme levels of nitrates found in our water supply this year poses a significant threat to our customers. We feel it is time for Iowans to engage in a serious discussion about this growing problem.

Nitrate levels in both the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nitrate standard (10 mg/l – determined as the level protective of public health) this spring. There were more nitrates in those rivers last week than there were all of last year combined.

Des Moines Water Works relies primarily on the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers as sources for Central Iowa’s drinking water. Because unprecedented nitrate levels have affected both rivers concurrently, Des Moines Water Works activated its Nitrate Removal Facility last Friday to keep finished drinking water below EPA standards. This facility, constructed in 1992 for $3.6 million, costs $7,000 per day to operate. Ratepayers fund the cost of constructing, maintaining and operating this facility.

We agree with one thing Rick Robinson of Iowa Farm Bureau Federation wrote, “if we all do our part – farmers, homeowners, businesses and communities – we will have a positive impact on Iowa’s watershed.” Where we diverge is that we do not believe everyone is doing their part to protect Iowa’s waterways.

Des Moines Water Works had the foresight to build a denitrification facility. DMWW has not had to operate it since 2007, but this is largely because DMWW has invested millions of additional dollars in additional treatment options to provide denitrification since 2007. It is misleading for a person to suggest the denitrification facility’s lack of use during recent years is proof nitrate levels have been lower than they have been in past years. DMWW has been able to avoid the costly operation of the facility because of other actions and investments it has made.

The heart of Des Moines Water Works’ mission is protecting public health. We can no longer work quietly while source waters continue to be severely polluted by upstream land practices. This should not be a sterile discussion influenced only by data and statistics—although ample alarming data and statistics exist. Nitrates pose serious health risks. It is increasingly costly for Des Moines Water Works to remove nitrates through treatment processes to meet necessary EPA standards.

There is simply no disputing surface water is significantly impacted by certain types of land use – the primary land uses in our upstream watersheds are agricultural related. Chemical fertilizers applied to fields are exacerbated by field drainage tiles, allowing run off to reach rivers and streams quickly and without the benefit of natural filtration and, this year, plant uptake.

In addition to exceptional levels of nitrates, high levels of ammonia and phosphorus, algae blooms, and increasing levels of bacteria are all deteriorating water quality in Iowa. The recently published Nutrient Reduction Strategy supported by many prominent State leaders, including Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land StewardshipIowa Department of Natural Resources, and the Governor’s office, is inadequate in that it lacks regulation, goals, measurable outcomes, or timelines for reducing agricultural (non-point) discharges. We advocate regulation through EPA-endorsed numeric standards by watershed—an approach with local emphasis that considers the current state of each watershed and does not force a one-size-fits-all approach.

Facing the reality of the degrading water quality and open meaningful discussion to identify solutions is long overdue.

Iowans should demand state leaders address improving and protecting owa’s water sources. State funding to support monitoring of nitrate pollutants should not be stripped away from the flood center of Iowa, an objective guardian if Iowa’s rivers and streams. Without significant action, Des Moines Water Works will be forced to continue treating degraded source waters, and our customers will continue to pay for that extensive treatment in their rates. With bold and innovative action, Des Moines Water Works believes healthy source waters and agriculture can co-exist. They must—both are critical to Iowa’s future.

Respectfully Submitted,

Water Works Board of Trustees:

Graham Gillette, Chair

David A. Carlson, Vice Chair

Leslie A. Gearhart, Trustee

Susan R. Huppert, Trustee

Marc R. Wallace, Trustee


William G. Stowe, Des Moines Water Works CEO & General Manager

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