Clean Water Litigation FAQ
Thursday, April 30, 2015
A major conduit of nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River watershed is the artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure, such as those created and managed by drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works recently filed a federal complaint against the Boards of Supervisors of Sac County, Buena Vista County, and Calhoun County, in their capacities as trustees of 10 drainage districts, for the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River.
The federal trial is scheduled for June 26, 2017.
A Clean Water Defense Fund has been established to offset costs incurred with the Clean Water 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.
Why is Nitrate Pollution a Problem?
- 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. To meet that standard, Des Moines Water Works has been operating its nitrate removal facility for a record 177 days in 2015 – more than any other year in Des Moines Water Works history.
- 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 contributes to the hypoxic conditions in public waters, including the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”
- Des Moines Water Works’ mission is to provide safe, abundant and affordable water to our customers. While Des Moines Water Works has invested millions of dollars in capital infrastructure and has developed strategies to manage high nitrate levels, record nitrate peaks in source waters have threatened and continue to threaten the security of the water supply and the ability of Des Moines Water Works to deliver safe and reliable water, while operating with fiscal discipline.
- The current denitrification technology is outdated and cannot continue to operate with rising nitrate levels and increased customer demand. Continued high nitrate concentrations will require future capital investments of $80 million to remove the pollutant and provide safe drinking water to a growing central Iowa.
Why a Lawsuit?
- Des Moines Water Works filed a complaint in Federal District Court – Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, on March 16, 2015. The complaint is currently in the discovery stages.
- The complaint seeks to declare the named drainage districts are “point sources,” not exempt from regulation, and are required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law, just as any other business that discharges in the waters of Iowa.
- The complaint states that the drainage districts have violated and continue to be in violation of the Clean Water Act and Chapter 455B, Code of Iowa, and demands the drainage districts take all necessary actions, including ceasing all discharges of nitrate that are not authorized by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
- In addition, damages are demanded by Des Moines Waters to compensate for the harm caused by the drainage districts unlawful discharge of nitrate, assess civil penalties, and award litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees to Des Moines Water Works as authorized by law.
- Des Moines Water Works’ mission is to provide safe, abundant and affordable water to our customers. Des Moines Water Works is fighting for the protection of customers’ right to safe drinking water. Through this legal process, Des Moines Water Works hopes to reduce long-term health risks and unsustainable economic costs to provide safe drinking water to our customers, via permit and regulation of drainage districts as pollutant sources.
- Continued insistence from state leaders that the voluntary approach of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which relies on regulating all businesses but agriculture, does not give solace to the 500,000 central Iowans who must now pay to remove pollution from their drinking water.
Why Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun Counties?
- Buena Vista, Calhoun, and Sac Counties are in the Des Moines Lobe. There are hundreds of drainage districts in these three counties. Under Iowa law, drainage districts are responsible for constructing, administering, and maintaining drainage infrastructure. Within each drainage district, a network of pipes and ditches move groundwater and agricultural pollutants quickly into our drinking water sources.
- Recent water monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites in Buena Vista, Sac, and Calhoun Counties have shown nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainages districts. This is 4 times the federally required Safe Drinking Water regulatory limit of 10 mg/L.
- Laws require that “point sources” discharging into rivers must have permits under the NPDES. Because drainage districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be recognized and held accountable like every other “point source” contributor. NPDES permits have been successful nationwide in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge.
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