Chris Wilbeck, 50, a former rural Rippey resident, urged the Des Moines Water Works board of trustees to file a federal lawsuit against three counties over farm runoff that taints the Raccoon River, an important source of drinking water for Des Moines area residents.

Former Rippey woman lauds farm fertilizer lawsuit


DES MOINES — A woman who moved her husband and son from their “dream acreage” near Rippey two years ago because someone built a hog confinement nearby was among dozens of environmentalists last week in Des Moines to support a controversial vote to sue three area counties for the farm fertilizer that pollutes the Raccoon River.

The Des Moines Water Works board of trustees voted unanimously on Thursday to proceed with a lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, whose boards of supervisors manage the stormwater runoff from vast areas of farmland.

Chris Wilbeck, the former Rippey woman who now lives in Des Moines, made an impassioned plea of support for the lawsuit because she is frustrated with the amount of power farmers and the agriculture industry have over other residents.

“They need to become accountable,” she told the trustees. “I think you should add Greene County” to the lawsuit.

That’s unlikely.

Water Works chose the three counties because their so-called “drainage districts” in Sac County were easy to test for elevated levels of nitrogen compounds, which in certain concentrations in drinking water can cause cancer and blue baby syndrome.

But if the lawsuit is successful, it is expected to have widespread implications for farmers whose fields are drained by underground tiling — which are mostly contained to the northwest quadrant of the state.

The federal Clean Water Act makes it illegal to discharge any pollution into rivers and streams without a permit and most often applies to municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities.

A meat-packing plant, for example, is subject to the law. But farmers have long been exempt from the same restrictions because they are not considered “point source” polluters — that is, the water runoff from their fields doesn’t exit solely from a pipe.

But Bill Stowe seeks to change that.

Stowe, the Water Works’ chief executive, alleges that the underground tiling that helps drain farm fields should be considered a “point source,” and thus require the drainage districts to obtain permits for the pollution that leaves the farm fields.

Stowe’s workers have for the past nine months traveled weekly to 72 sites in Sac County to measure the amount of nitrogen in runoff water that is destined for the Raccoon River, an important source of drinking water in the Des Moines area.

Tests at those sites revealed nitrogen compound levels of up to four times the federally mandated limit for drinking water, Stowe said. He told The Jefferson Herald last week that the drainage districts should be forced to keep those levels below the limit.

“We’re challenging the ag exemption,” Stowe said. “It’s a pollutant. ... The ultimate issue for us is to improve the water quality. Nitrates today (in the Raccoon River) are twice what are safe for human consumption.”

Water Works has about 500,000 customers. Stowe said it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past two years to remove the nitrogen compounds from the drinking water.

Water Works gave the three counties 60 days’ notice to rectify the problem, otherwise it will file a federal lawsuit.

State agricultural officials and lobbyists decried the move.

“This action by Des Moines Water Works is the wrong approach to address the important issue of improving water quality,” Bill Northey, the state’s secretary of agriculture, said in a statement provided to the Herald. “And unfortunately, it continues the negative, antagonistic and unproductive approach by the current leadership at Des Moines Water Works.”

Northey had urged the trustees to be patient. His department created a set of strategies in 2012 to reduce fertilizer runoff, and Northey has said it will take years to see the results from farmers’ voluntary improvements.

But Bill Stowe called the plan — dubbed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy — a failure.

Wilbeck, the former Rippey woman, sees the lawsuit as a potential starting point to shift power away from the powerful agriculture industry, which has for decades avoided stricter regulation of its farm fields.

“We thought we were going to retire there,” she said of her former acreage where she lived about 10 years. “It was peaceful for us.”

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