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Des Moines Worries About Water Supply

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) - Three Iowa drainage districts are threatening the Des Moines drinking water supply by dumping nitrate runoff into the Raccoon River, the Des Moines water board claims in court.

The Des Moines Board of Water Works sued drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista Counties in Federal Court on Monday, under the Clean Water Act.

Nitrates in high concentration are common effluent from feedlots and agricultural land. The Raccoon River is a source of drinking water for about 500,000 Iowans in the Des Moines area. The Des Moines water board says the defendants "created, operated and maintained drainage facilities which collect and discharge groundwater directly into ditches and streams, including discharges that reach the Raccoon River."

It claims that the discharges are illegal without a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.

The Iowa Department of National Resources, cited in the complaint, states that unpermitted water sources "contribute 87.9% nitrate while permitted entities contribute only 10.3%."

The 52-page lawsuit describes how costly the river's consistently high concentration of nitrates has been for the Des Moines water board, which built the world's largest ion exchange facility to treat the contaminated water in 1991.

The facility cost $4.1 million to build, and $7,000 per day to run. Although intended to operate on an "as-needed" basis, water from the Raccoon River exceeds the 10 mg/L safety standard for nitrate 24 percent of the time, according to the complaint.

The water board says that it will need to build a new nitrate removal facility before 2020, at a cost of $76 million to $183 million.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, nitrate levels above the prescribed safety limit are particularly dangerous to babies and developing fetuses, as they compromise the body's ability to adequately distribute oxygen, causing "blue baby syndrome" and even death.

Because the Raccoon River is a tributary of the Mississippi, its nitrate levels significantly contribute to hypoxia - oxygen levels too low to support aquatic life - in the Gulf of Mexico, the complaint states.

It cites studies that show that Iowa is responsible for 25 percent of the nitrate that drains into the Gulf, despite occupying only 5 percent of the Mississippi River drainage basin.

Nitrate levels peaked in the summer of 2013, the fall of 2014, and the winter of 2015, according to the complaint.

"Although this problem has been scientifically studied and documented for decades, there has been no adequate or effective response to nitrate pollution from drainage systems," the water board says. "In order for Des Moines Water Works to continue to provide clean and safe water at a reasonable cost, and to protect the State of Iowa and the United States from a further environmental and health crisis, the discharge of nitrate from drainage district infrastructure must be addressed."

Although the Iowa Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Iowa State University released an Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that devoted 160 pages to agricultural drainage pollution, "an entirely voluntary 'strategy' with no benchmarks or timeline to measure success is an inadequate response to a problem with a well-documented cause," the complaint states.

"There is no foreseeable likelihood that the Drainage Districts will voluntarily alter or reduce discharge of nitrate into the Raccoon River watershed and the discharge of nitrate is a permanent invasion of Des Moines Water Works' use of property," the water board says.

"The Drainage Districts will not suffer unreasonable hardship if they are required to mitigate the discharge of nitrate into the Raccoon River or obtain a permit, or both."

The water board seeks damages for violations of federal and state clean water statutes, nuisance, trespass, negligence, unconstitutional taking, and deprivation of rights.

It is represented by Richard Malm with Dickinson, Mackaman, Tyler & Hagen.

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