War of the Water

Only two – three if you’re reading from Ohio – state lines separate us from a war raging in Iowa. Iowans may not be our neighbors, but they’re our friends, and like us, the people of the Hawkeye state either have, or are directly connected to someone who has, strong ties to agriculture. So when a firestorm takes place on their home turf, it’s probably a good idea for us in Indiana and Ohio to take note.

The raging war, which includes Des Moines Water Works in one corner and three rural counties in the other, is over water usage. But you’ll learn as you examine the issue, the key players and argument, that the outcome of this war could lay the ground for many just like it across the Midwest.

Are you listening now?

Let’s break down the issue:

Who: Des Moines Water Works vs. Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties in rural Iowa. These three counties are part of the drainage district of north central Iowa, which feeds into the Raccoon River. In turn, the Raccoon River – with the Des Moines River – is the main water source for Des Moines Water Works.


Why: A drought gripped much of the Midwest during 2012-13 (who could forget?), but then intense rainstorms washed many applied nitrates out of the soil. In 2013 Des Moines Water Works said the utility experienced “extremely high nitrate concentrations” during the spring and summer of that year.

To reduce these levels to the 10 milligrams per liter standard for drinking water set by EPA, Des Moines Water Works was forced to run its de-nitrification plant at a cost of almost $1 million. Then, in December 2014, the utility operated the plant for 96 days during the winter months at a cost of more than $500,000 in operations and additional expenses.

The additional expenses really started to stockpile quickly and in early 2015 Des Moines Water Works announced that the utility would no longer pay to take the additional nitrates out of the drinking water supply. Instead, they wanted the people who were believed to be causing the nitrate pollution upstream from the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers (farmers applying nitrogen in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties) to pay for the de-nitrification plant operation.

What: The lawsuit includes three components:

  1. That the three drainage districts in question don’t have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits (which are usually reserved for factories to discharge water from their facilities),
  2. That the districts are in violation of the Clean Water Act of Iowa
  3. That the discharge water unsuitable for public use represents a form of trespass on DMWW property.

In total, Water Works is suing for $80 million in damages from the drainage districts and that they be shut down until NPDES permits are obtained.


When: The notice of intent to sue went out in March 2015. A trial date for the case is set for August 8, 2016.

How (Does This Affect You?): The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit outcome could very well revolve around the definition of groundwater vs. storm water.

(That shudder that just went through your body is completely justified.)

The common perception among experts in Iowa is that the water being discharged by drainage tiles in the state comes from storm water runoff, not groundwater, making agricultural storm water runoff exempt from the Clean Water Act. The question of what constitutes agricultural storm water runoff has never been litigated before.

Des Moines Water Works argues that this is actually groundwater discharge, not storm water, and if the court decides that this is in fact the case, then any discharge water coming from farm drainage tiles in the state can be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

Now that’s frightening.

If Des Moines Water Works succeeds in its lawsuit, the consequences will pay no mind to state lines. The elimination of an agricultural storm water exception in the state of Iowa would quickly turn this into a national issue. In fact, every drainage ditch in the country would then be impacted. And not just the drainage ditch itself, but regulation would also begin on any chemical or fertilizer recommendations made on those ditches.

Plain and simple:
This lawsuit in Iowa could
completely change your operations
and our business.


Indiana and Ohio each have 50% of their cropland tiled, whereas Iowa has 25% and Illinois has 35%. Source: P.K. Kalita, R.A.C. Cooke, et. al. Subsurface Drainage and Water Quality: The Illinois Experience. Transactions of the ASABE. Vo. 50(5): 1651-1656

Harvest Land is certainly keeping an eye on this debate and we’ll keep our readers up to speed on any progress. The outcome of this war is entirely too personal to the business we do, and not far – at all – from our home base.
I don’t know about you, but I consider it too close for comfort when I can drive to the active battleground on a day trip.



Water In Iowa: The War Intensifies

Iowa’s Nasty Water War

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