Des Moines Sues over Water Quality

Des Moines Water Works is suing several Iowa drainage districts under the Clean Water Act. The action has prompted handwringing among political and farm leaders in Iowa.

The implications of the debate reach far beyond state boundaries.

The lawsuit charges that upstream drainage districts are failing to properly regulate pollutants that flow from agricultural land into the Raccoon River watershed. Des Moines draws its drinking water from the river.

The suit seeks to declare the drainage districts as “point sources,” and thus require them to obtain permits to discharge pollutants into the public waterway.

Des Moines has struggled with high levels of nitrate pollution in their water – up to 6 times the federal limit. The water utility operates an expensive nitrate removal system to make the water safe to drink again.

The challenge is more than a decade old, and the problem is systemic.

Federal farm policy is a key driver. Generous crop insurance subsidies encourage farm operators to maximize production and acres under cultivation. At the same time federal farm conservation spending has fallen, including a $4 billion cut in the 2014 farm bill.

One could say, we get what we pay for. Federal policy incentivizes a system of agriculture that contributes to nitrate pollution. At the same time, incentive programs for conservation are too thinly funded to address the challenge, and conservation compliance rules from the 1985 farm bill are not well enforced.

To be certain, there are good farmers who are taking steps to address the issue at the farm level. This includes maintenance of grass waterways and buffer strips, smarter application of nitrogen fertilizer, and incorporating perennials and cover crops into the landscape to capture nitrogen in the soil.

But the challenge is a classic tragedy of the commons. That is why a durable solution will likely require a combination of regulatory requirements buttressed by incentive payments.

Regulatory requirements are needed to prompt widespread adoption. Incentive payments are appropriate to reward farmers for providing environmental services to the greater community.

Endorsing a regulatory framework to solve the problem is controversial. But deployed right, regulations can level the playing field between good actors and bad actors by requiring all participants to meet basic standards.

Most Iowans appear to agree that new action is needed to address the long-running problem.

A recent poll conducted by The Des Moines Register found that a majority of Iowans – including both urban and rural Iowans and both Democrats and Republicans – support the Des Moines lawsuit.

Systemic problems are difficult to solve. Solving this challenge will require action at the farm, county, state and federal level. And it will require a combination of regulatory requirements and conservation incentives. All eyes are watching how the stakeholders move forward.