Des Moines to Upstream Counties: “We’re Tired of You Pouring Your Agricultural Shit in Our Water Supply.”

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A graphic message from the folks at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

Last summer, I stood on a bridge over the flooding Middle Raccoon River in Iowa and watched thick mats of brownish foam surging downstream. They had been created by hog manure washed from fields into the river by heavy rains.

Later, when I asked him about the froth, William Stowe, Chief Executive Officer and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, smiled ruefully and informed me that I was going to be drinking that very water in my hotel room.

Pollution from hog farms and other agricultural operations has become a steadily worsening problem for Stowe and the 500,000 customers he serves.

For several months in 2013, levels of agricultural nitrates in the Des Moines water supply hovered at levels just below the maximum limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, even though the Water Works kept machines designed to remove the pollutants—which can cause “blue baby” disease and have been linked to cancers—operating at full capacity. Keeping the water barely potable cost ratepayers $7,000 a day.

In early 2014, Water Works wrestled to control ammonia pollution in the water supply caused by hog manure, again bumping up against safe limits. Since early December, the utility’s denitrification facilities have once again been in operation 24/7.

There are few more concrete examples of what critics of industrial agriculture call “externalizing costs.” Not only are residents of Des Moines paying to clean up the pollution caused by highly profitable factory farmers, but they face the possibility of suffering health consequences from problems that are created hundreds of miles away. Pollution from the Raccoon flows into the Mississippi, where it effects St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans and contributed to the vast, lifeless dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

This week the Water Works decided that it has taken enough shit. It filed a notice of intent to sue the Boards of Supervisors of three upstream counties under the Clean Water Act unless they stop discharging pollutants within 60 days.

Monitoring at 72 sites in the three counties showed nitrate levels nearly four times the EPA limit. Water Works claims that the counties are responsible for a system of ditches, pipes, and drainage tiles that whisk runoff from fields and confined hog operations directly into drinking water sources.

The Water Works’ notice of intent is the latest in a series of legal actions taken by Iowa citizens after their concerns were shrugged by a state government where politicians of both major parties are deeply beholden to agribusiness. In 2012, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, threatened to sue the federal Environmental Protection Agency unless it forced the state Department of Natural Resources to strengthen its oversight of pollution from factory farms.

In 2013, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a grassroots organization, sued Maschhoffs, LLC, a pork producing company that dumped thousands of gallons of manure into a creek. If successful, the suit would require the company to obtain a Clean Water Act permit that would require  it to adhere to strict regulations—and perhaps set a precedent that other big operations will have to follow.

These were important victories. That they were achieved in courts of law rather than in the statehouse says a lot about the cozy relationship between agricultural polluters and the government officials charged with policing them.

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