Urban and Rural Areas Clash Over Water Pollution Clean Up

A June 2015 Governing article highlighted the ongoing tension between urban and rural areas regarding water pollution issues.  The in-depth article analyzed a conflict between Des Moines, Iowa, and several rural county farming agencies in the state that has led to litigation.  From the article:

But to hear Bill Stowe tell it, the dirty water isn’t really Des Moines’ problem at all — it’s the problem of outlying rural counties, where farmers apply nitrogen-heavy fertilizers to boost crop production. Stowe, the CEO of the [Des Moines] area’s water utility, says he’s tired of waiting for farmers to voluntarily reduce the amounts of nitrate they allow to seep into groundwater, and he’s tired of waiting for someone to police the farmers.

So he’s suing them.

“Our stormwater systems, our sanitary sewers, our water systems are paying for pollution caused upstream by agricultural producers,” Stowe says. “That’s not a situation we’re going to allow to continue to go unchecked.”

The lawsuit technically pits the Des Moines Water Works against 13 obscure agencies in three agricultural counties more than 100 miles upstream from the city. But it carries great symbolic significance — it challenges fundamental farming practices in a state whose identity and reputation are linked inextricably with agriculture. It also exposes an urban-rural rift. “Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa,”  Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican in his sixth term, said as the utility geared up for the court battle this winter. “Instead of filing a lawsuit, Des Moines should sit down with the farmers and people who want to do something about it.”

Stowe dismisses the idea of a regional conflict. “Clean water is no less necessary on farms and in small towns than it is in cities and suburbs,” he says. “The issue is more starkly industrial agriculture versus the rest of Iowa. The endgame here is agricultural accountability for water quality in this state. There’s not another business that could put … a pipe into a water of the state and not be regulated.”

The suit claims that water polluted by fertilizer should be regulated under the same federal rules that govern water discharged from factories and sewage treatment plants. It’s forcing Iowans to confront the long-neglected and sometimes painful problem of how to clean up their rivers without choking off the lifeblood of the state’s economy. It’s part of a bigger discussion about Iowa’s farming history and what the state wants to be in the future.

Similar conversations are taking place in other states as well. This spring, Ohio lawmakers cracked down on farming practices (such as spreading manure on frozen fields) that harm waterways, after a Lake Erie algae bloom shut down Toledo’s water supply for two days last August. In Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic states, efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay have increasingly focused on stormwater runoff in communities far upstream from the bay.