The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties over water quality is scheduled to be heard by a federal trial judge, beginning Aug. 8, 2016, unless a continuance is sought, a court document indicates.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett expects the bench trial in Sioux City to last up to two weeks.
The Des Moines utility is suing Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, claiming drainage districts there act as conduits for nitrates to move from farm fields into the Raccoon River, one of two sources of drinking water for 500,000 residents in the Des Moines metro area.
The utility seeks federal oversight of the drainage districts, and indirectly farmers, under the Clean Water Act. Attorneys for the counties have denied the field tiles are contributing to Des Moines’ nitrate problems. They seek to have the lawsuit dismissed.
Des Moines attorney Charles Becker, an attorney for the north Iowa counties, declined to comment Wednesday.
Bill Stowe, the utility’s CEO, said the utility is confident the lawsuit “will lead to greater environmental protections in Iowa.”
Stowe criticized what he called farm propaganda on water quality, pointing to TV ads from the newly created Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. Instead, he said, the utility wants “substantive discussions about what will protect the quality of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.”
Ag leaders have encouraged growers to adopt more conservation practices outlined under the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to keep nitrogen and other nutrients on farm fields, where crops need them. The state provided $9.6 million in the last legislative session for conservation and water quality initiatives.
Chris Hensley, a Des Moines City Council member, is an Iowa Clean Water Partnership leader. She said the lawsuit is “not the right path forward.”
“Legal action will create a divide between rural and urban Iowa and do nothing to reduce nitrate levels. Collaboration will increase participation in conservation efforts, such as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and make a positive impact on water quality.
“We encourage Des Moines Water Works to sit down and listen to all impacted stakeholders, as the consequences of a lawsuit are far-reaching,” she said.
Stowe said recent high nitrate levels prompted the Des Moines utility to run its nitrate removal plant for more than 150 days, longer than ever before. It stopped using the plant late last week.
“We want to hear about meaningful, measurable, monitored, scheduled protections of water quality in Iowa,” Stowe said. “We don’t need to hear about 10 bioreactors in a state with 20 million acres of row crops, or $4 million to $5 million put into conservation practices.”
Stowe said the Des Moines utility is talking to some Iowa agriculture business leaders about how the lawsuit could be settled. He declined to say who is involved in the conversations.
“Business leaders see that there is a great opportunity to work together to protect our water and move ag forward,” he said.
John Torbert, executive director for the Iowa Drainage District Association, said he hopes a trial can be avoided — “whether that’s realistic or not.”
“All sides are pretty dug in,” he said. “I don’t see how that gets resolved other than going to court.”
Bennett, the federal court judge, said he would give both sides14 days to request a continuance. A final pretrial conference is scheduled for July 26, 2016.