Home Audio Voluntary conservation comes under fire as river nitrate levels rise

Voluntary conservation comes under fire as river nitrate levels rise

DES MOINES, Iowa – On Thursday the Des Moines Water Works turned on its nitrate removal facility in response to high levels of nitrates in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. The facility costs ratepayers thousands of dollars per day to operate, but it’s keeping nitrate levels in finished drinking water below the Environmental Protection Agency’s ten parts per million threshold.

Ask a farmer, and the reason for the unusually high nitrate levels is clear cut.

“When it’s warm and when it’s wet, nitrate moves in the soil profile,” says Iowa Farm Bureau Environmental Policy Advisor Rick Robinson. He says nitrate levels in both rivers have trended downward since 2006, according to data available from the Des Moines Water Works. Robinson says that’s a sign farmers are doing a good job of voluntarily curbing runoff, and it means additional farm regulations would be inappropriate.

“To say that all farmers need to do practices A, B and C will miss the mark, according to the science,” explains Robinson, “and we will not have the environmental performance that some are looking for as a result of that regulation. We need to figure out, watershed by watershed, what practices work best for each individual farmer, and that’s going to take some time.”

Des Moines Water Works CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe says time is already up.

“The long and short of it is this: it’s a public safety issue,” says Stowe. “Our water supply is being directly confronted by high nitrate concentrations. To say more time is needed is to gloss over, to disregard, and to disrespect the public safety issues associated with that.”

Stowe disagrees with the nature of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which encourages farmers to voluntarily adopt certain conservation practices, but has no timeframe for producing its stated goals of nitrogen and phosphorus reduction in Iowa’s waterways. Stowe says the strategy simply doesn’t go far enough in producing quantifiable results.

“Certainly conservation practices are going to be very important,” Stowe concedes, “but there are also treatment practices that are out there; there are points in what is viewed as a nonpoint system that, in our experience, are right for some technology coming into play, to try and provide nitrogen and phosphorus removal.”

Stowe says the Des Moines Water Works is also weighing its legal options, to sue the state over the high nitrate levels.

Progress on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals is documented each year by the state’s Water Resources Coordinating Council, which will release an annual report late next spring.

To hear more perspective on Iowa’s perennial water problems, click the audio player above this story.