Des Moines Water Works, which provides drinking water to nearly 500,000 Iowa residents, has sued three adjacent rural Iowa counties over a nitrates issue. The suit alleges that nitrate runoff from farm fields is flowing into the Raccoon River, which eventually ends up in the city’s drinking water supply. Des Moines Water Works is seeking legal action to make farmers comply with federal clean-water standards (the same standards that apply to factories and commercial users). The utility is also requesting damages.

Surprising in all of this? Nearly every party involved agrees that there’s a problem. However, they differ over the solution. The utility wants to hold farmers to strict federal water quality standards, but the farmers (and agricultural groups) favor voluntary measures. But leadership at the Des Moines Water Works says the issue has gone on too long.

Mitch Smith (@MitchKSmith) reports for The New York Times:

“It’s very clear to me that traditional, industrial agriculture has no real interest in taking the steps that are necessary to radically change their operations in a way that will protect our drinking water,” said Bill Stowe, the chief executive of Des Moines Water Works. High nitrate runoff, which can result from nitrogen-rich soil and applied fertilizer, places Des Moines’s drinking water in danger of violating federal quality standards, Mr. Stowe said, and increases costs and poses health risks for customers.

The lawsuit is also highlighting a rare urban-rural divide in a state that not only defines itself by agriculture, but also by a tradition of collaboration in problem solving. And what they perceive as an antagonistic approach is bothering some farmers.

“It’s a confrontational approach,” said Mr. Johnson, who farms corn and soybeans here in Calhoun County, one of three counties whose boards of supervisors were named as defendants in the lawsuit. “I think there’s been a lot of progress made. I don’t know any farmer who wants to increase nitrates in the river.”


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