On March 17, a federal judge dismissed the Des Moines Water Works’ suit, which argued that upstream farmers should be responsible for cleaning up elevated nitrate levels in central Iowa’s drinking water.  The ruling was a blow to ongoing efforts to deal with agricultural runoff through regulatory channels, versus the current voluntary approach. While the Water Works suit is stalled -- for now – what’s next for water quality in the Mississippi River Basin?  

In 2015, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), which provides drinking water to 500,000 Iowa residents, filed suit against three upstream counties.  They alleged that the three agricultural counties were polluting the drinking water by releasing excess nitrate into the Raccoon River, the primary source of water to DMWW. In 2015, the Water Works spent $1.5 million to remove nitrate from drinking water and has reported that $80 million is needed to upgrade DMWW to handle excess nutrients.

Excess nitrates in drinking water have been linked to a host of health issues, including blue baby syndrome, birth defects, cancers, and thyroid issues.  Excess nitrates flow downstream into the Gulf, contributing to the seasonal Dead Zone in the Gulf, an area approximately the size of Connecticut.

In Iowa and in much of the upper-Midwest, many farmers rely on tile drainage.  Tile is a below-ground drainage system that farmers install to help dry water-logged soils and make them appropriate for crop growth.  Out of all nitrate sources, tile drainage is responsible for the greatest amount of nitrates delivered to the Gulf of Mexico, and the resulting Hypoxic Zone. 

Currently, the Clean Water Act does not regulate water leaving farmers’ fields, which falls into an exempted category reserved for irrigated agriculture. The DMWW suit sought to have agricultural runoff regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act

In January, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that DMWW could not be rewarded damages. Last Friday, Federal Judge Leonard Strand ruled that the water quality issue was a problem for the Iowa legislature, not the courts. In his decision, Strand acknowledged that while DMWW “may well have suffered an injury,” the drainage districts have no mechanism to address the issue as it would be impossible to trace poor drinking water quality to any particular farmer. Currently, the Republican-controlled Iowa state legislature is debating a bill that would dismantle the current governance of DMWW and hand water treatment oversight to the counties.

As the region, and the country, grapples with excess nutrients, it’s likely that the ruling on DMWW isn’t the last word on water quality from the courts.  But with both the DMWW decision and the pullback on the controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, the task of cleaning up water quality falls back on to ongoing state, farmer, and regional cooperative efforts.

In 2008, the 12 states in the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force were required to develop and implement nutrient reduction strategies in the form of a State Nutrient Reduction Plan.

Farmers are taking notice – with water quality remaining a top concern. In Iowa, a survey in The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s 2016 progress report shows that nearly 83 percent of Iowa farmers surveyed agree or strongly agree with the statement “I am concerned about agriculture’s impacts on Iowa’s water quality,” and 75 percent of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I would like to improve conservation practices on the land I farm to help meet the Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals.”  Additionally, while 57 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “the nutrient management practices I use are sufficient to prevent loss of nutrients into waterways,” another 39 percent were uncertain.

While many have argued that the plans don’t go far enough -- many farmers are working on solutions-oriented issues to meet the goals of the state plan for nonpoint source reductions, such as planting cover-crops, installing bioreactors, planting buffer strips or installing permanent vegetation (for more information on these practices, check out our recent fact sheet: Conservation Measures and the Farm Bill).

Nationwide, growth in cover crop acreage has been uneven, but it is expected that interest in implementing the practices is only going to continue to grow.  According to the Iowa Soybean Association, cover crop use by Iowa soy farmers is expected to increase to 750,000 acres in 2017, up from 500,000 acres in 2015.  On fields with cover crops, Iowa Soybean Association estimates farmers reduced nitrate concentrations in tile systems by 29 percent.

Programs at USDA, including the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), help farmers adopt best management practices on farms, such as crop rotations, cover crops, soil quality improvement, and no-till operations. The program places a priority on projects that tackle nutrient management and water quality in areas of greatest conservation need, such as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin. Through RCPP, it is expected that a total of $2.4 billion in public and private funds will be made available to conservation efforts.

In Iowa, it seems, that the DMWW ruling will change little – for now. Iowa Soybean Association President Rolland Schnell stated that, “we have a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy in the state that most farmers are working hard to comply with … There’s a lot of progress going on.”


For more information see:

With Water Works' lawsuit dismissed, water quality is the legislature's problem, Des Moines Register

Lawsuit Dismissal Catalyst to Conservation, Iowa Soybean Association