Iowa’s capital city is testing the waters on a new way to keep fertilizer runoff from neighboring farms out of the two rivers that supply the city with drinking water. NPR reports that Des Moines Water Works plans to sue three cities surrounding it over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers caused by fertilizers flowing in from local farms–an activity that has thus far gone unregulated. Their concerns over the fertilizers stem from the fact that high levels of nitrates can cause a health risk, particularly for infants younger than 6 months. Add to that the fact that filtering nitrates from the water cost Des Moines $900,000 in 2013 and you have a real problem for the city.

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“(We) are seeing the public water supply directly risked by high nitrate concentrations,” Des Moines Water Works general manager, Bill Stowe told Iowa Public Radio last week. He explains that the nitrate gets into the rivers after it percolates through the soil beneath nearby corn farms and into a network of underground pipes that drains the soil. County governments often manage such networks and Des Moines Water Works is going ahead with their legal action based on the theory that these governments can be held legally responsible for the pollution carried by the pipes into the city’s two rivers.

“When they build these artificial drainage districts that take polluted water, quickly into the Raccoon River, they have a responsibility to us and others as downstream users,” Stowe said. “We need to get down to specific steps they need to take. If they aren’t willing, we’ll see them in federal court.”

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Local farmer, Dan Hanrahan sits on a local committee that reviews efforts to reduce water pollution and says financial incentives from state and federal governments that pay farmers to mitigate the pollution are popular, so much so that there’s a two-year waiting list. He adds that cooperative, voluntary efforts on the part of farmers will do more good than taking the matter through the courts.


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