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Des Moines Water Works: nutrient reduction strategy doesn't work

In May, the Des Moines Water Works detected historic nitrate levels in both the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. Due to last year’s drought, vast amounts of nutrients went unused, and during what became the wettest spring on record, those nutrients became runoff.

In order to keep , the Des Moines Water Works activated its nitrate removal facility for the first time in six years, at customer expense. The Des Moines Water works also took the opportunity to criticize the newly-released Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“There’s not a lot in it that’s concrete as far as actual goals that can be accomplished or any kind of timeline,” says Des Moines Water Works Public Policy Analyst Linda Kinman. She calls the strategy “disappointing,” and says it’s not applied evenly. Kinman is careful to point out that many farmers take the right approach, but when the strategy requires best technology from point sources like the Des Moines Water Works and keeps compliance entirely voluntary from non-point sources like farmers’ fields, she says watersheds won’t change very much.

According to Kinman, a better system would’ve been to set workable standards by watershed, rather than a sweeping document for the whole state.

We think that in some cases there are watersheds that have been monitored enough that we can set a nutrient standard by that watershed and say ‘Okay, then you need to reduce your nutrient contribution by this amount.’ That again brings the cities, the counties, the farmers – everybody together to say ‘Okay, we have a problem in our watershed, how are we going to solve it?’ If you solve it through the waste-water [point source] process, that’s great, if you solve it through the agricultural [non-point source] process, that’s great too. But we think the standard can be set by watershed; it’ll bring the groups together to actually work together to try to come up with some workable solutions and in a timeline that we think is more appropriate.

In the Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy, only point sources discharging one million gallons per day or more are affected during the permit process, which typically happens every five years. When applying for a discharge permit through the Iowa DNR, those major municipalities will be required to perform an evaluation to determine nutrient loads and ways to reduce them. Those facilities will then be tasked with implementing the changes they identify.

Because the Des Moines Water Works is not one of those sources, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy does not require it to make any changes.