Greene County puts dog in water fight

County pledges $15K to support legal defense of counties being sued by Des Moines Water Works


With a unanimous vote from the board of supervisors, Greene County on Monday became the fourth Iowa county to pledge financial support to the legal defense of three nearby counties facing a lawsuit by Des Moines Water Works over the amount of pollution in the Raccoon River.

The five supervisors — virtually all of whom expressed surprise in March that Greene County wasn’t named in the federal suit — voted to pledge $5,000 per year for three years to the Iowa Drainage District Association, which is rallying financial support on behalf of Calhoun, Sac and Buena Vista counties.

Those three counties represent the 10 drainage districts that Water Works alleges are polluting the Raccoon River with nitrates that regularly exceed the federal limit for safe drinking water.

“I think ultimately it will be thrown out,” Supervisor Mick Burkett predicted at Monday’s board meeting, “but it will cost money.”

In a letter dated May 8 to all county boards of supervisors, the West Des Moines-based IDDA warned that if the Water Works lawsuit is successful, it would have “massive legal and financial consequences on drainage districts and the landowners in those districts.”

Monona, Emmet and Worth counties were the first three to pledge the requested $15,000 to IDDA to support the legal defense, according to John Torbert, the association’s executive director.

He said Monday he expects others to join the fight, as the resolution of support is on many supervisors’ agendas this week and next.

Any unspent money would be returned to each county, according to the IDDA.

Under Iowa law, county supervisors act as trustees for drainage districts even though landowners pay for maintenance.

Drainage districts — with their miles of underground tile — emerged as a way for farmers to cooperatively drain the land. But not every county has organized drainage districts, according to Torbert.

In Iowa, they’re largely contained to the northwest quadrant of the state, he said, covering 36 counties.

There are more than 150 drainage districts in Greene County.

Water Works seeks to have drainage districts regulated like factories because of their ability to carry fertilizer and other runoff into the river that serves as a source of drinking water for the Des Moines metro area.

John Muir, chairman of the Greene County board of supervisors, said Monday the suit would be “ridiculously restrictive to agriculture” if successful.

Swaths of farmland would likely have to be taken out of production in order to create natural nitrate filters.

For Greene County supervisors, it wasn’t a matter of whether to pledge financial support to IDDA — it’s how to pay it.

Supervisors on Monday were undecided about which fund to use, thanks to a philosophical discussion that ensued.

Supervisor Guy Richardson urged the board to consider it as purely a drainage issue ­— therefore, the landowners in each of the county’s drainage districts should be assessed accordingly.

“The more conversation we have, the more I think everyone in the county should step up to the plate,” Supervisor Tom Contner said. “Everybody’s at fault. Lawns, golf courses ...”

Churdan-area farmer George Naylor, a vocal advocate of family farms, told the supervisors in open forum that the federal suit is a reality check for big ag.

“Before you jump on the bandwagon and say (Water Works CEO) Bill Stowe is crazy ... we have a problem and we should be addressing it,” Naylor urged.

Stowe has called the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy a failure.

“A voluntary program isn’t the way to do it,” Naylor agreed.

Naylor himself confessed that it’s easy to over-apply chemicals, which is why regulations are needed.

He called the outcry over the suit a “smoke screen” to let corporate agriculture carry on unchecked.

“The way agriculture is going is a disaster,” Naylor said, “and it’s going to be a disaster to us all.”

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