After a 60-day notice of intent to sue expired last week, Des Moines Water Works voted unanimously to file a federal lawsuit against three counties in northwest Iowa for nitrate pollution.

The lawsuit — which claims drainage districts act as a ‘conduit,’ channeling fertilizer and manure between farm fields and waterways — follows after the public utility stopped running its nitrate-removal facility.

The Des Moines Register reported the facility was used for 97 consecutive days, and was the first time it had to run in the winter to combat nitrates.

The public is widely supportive of the lawsuit, and when you hear their stories it’s hard to blame them. At a public meeting held March 10, one Iowa resident shared how she had lived on a well for 9 years that was polluted with a nitrate count of 40 ppm — 4 times the legal, safe level for human consumption, she said.  

“It was poisonous,” she said. “The health department said on the bottom of the slip when we got our water tested: Unfit for human consumption. Do not drink this water.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau and 11 farm groups responded to the announcement with a joint statement saying that enacting regulations will do nothing to improve water quality.

That may be true. But I do think it’s time for growers to realize they will have to go above and beyond their current conservation efforts to ensure they’re doing everything in their power to limit nutrient runoff from their fields while maintaining a profitable operation.

At the Iowa Soybean Association’s Research Conference last month, Seth Watkins, a cow-calf operator and no-tiller in Clarinda, Iowa, echoed that belief in a farmer panel on water quality.

“We have to get over the attitude of basically, ‘You know my farm’s terraced and I use no-till, so I’m fine,’” he said. “Conservation is really a moving target and it’s going to take a variety of systems to get there.”

One piece of advice that he shared is that it’s okay not to farm everything. He’s implemented the STRIPs program on his farm, which is the integration of prairie into selected areas of row-crop fields to help reduce sediment and nutrient loss while increasing biodiversity.

While Watkins hasn’t done water monitoring to see what the nutrient reductions are on his farm, he said there’s 8 years of data showing a reduction of about 95% of phosphorus, 90% of sediment and 85% of nitrogen where the STRIPS are in place.

No-tiller Rob Stout of Washington, Iowa, also shared the results of a bioreactor he put on his farm last year for a 65-acre tiled field. Before the bioreactor the nitrates were in the 10-14 ppm range, and now they’re down to 0.2-0.3 — a 97% reduction.

He admits the bioreactor was not cheap — about $14,000, which he paid $7,000 out-of-pocket for.

“That might be a barrier to some people, but the results are so phenomenal I think it’s worth it, because I’m putting out clean water with it,” Stout said.

Watkins added that being a custodian of the land is a privilege, and not always about making money.

“For me, I don’t get as much into the dollars and cents, as it’s simply doing the right thing, that’s what this is really about,” Watkins said. “This is for me being able to sleep at night.”