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Legal Decisions in Iowa and What It Means for Safe Drinking Water

After a tense two years, one of the most notable lawsuits in recent agricultural memory has been decided by the Iowa Supreme Court.

The suit was brought by the Des Moines Water Works against irrigation districts in three counties—Buena Vista, Calhoun, and Sac—alleging that they had allowed unsafe levels of nitrates into the Racoon River, which provides drinking water for more than 500,000 residents in state’s largest city. According to the DMWW, this excess of chemicals required extra treatment, which in turn required excessive spending. The Water Works aimed to make the defendants provide for these funds, as well as fines for nuisance, trespassing, negligence, and violation of the Clean Water Act. The Court ruled in the counties’ favor, deeming that Iowa state law did not offer any grounds for the DMWW to hold the defendants responsible.

This may sound like a victory for agriculture, and in an economic sense, it certainly is. But the decision only clarified things in a strictly legal sense. It did nothing to potentially deny truth behind the allegations that agricultural development in these counties are dirtying the water with their drainage, nor that the Raccoon River is in an unhealthy state as a result.

Down the line, no one will win, regardless of who pays to clean up the mess.

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It’s easy to temporarily ignore the excess of nitrates that drain into creeks and other watersheds from one’s property, because the problem doesn’t impact you… at first. But it will impact you when your drinking water is harmful because of those upstream from you. Or when those downstream sue because of your drainage practices (on state level, these suits may be illegal…but neighbors suing neighbors has long been in practice).

Further on downstream, cities like Des Moines struggle to provide clean drinking water because of these nitrates. And Des Moines may be far-removed from the Mississippi on the state’s eastern border, but nitrates flowing into that river from Iowa and other agricultural states have resulted in a massive “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. These substances drain water of oxygen, killing all aquatic life.

Expect more cases like the one seen in Des Moines, and not only in Iowa. Although the court ruled against the DMWW today, future courts may disagree… especially if the problems worsen.

Watershed Materials was founded by farmers, for farmers, so we know just how problematic (and costly) the issue of overfertilization can be. That’s why we developed Nancy’s Blankets, an erosion control blanket that germinates seed for grass waterways, which capture excess nitrates to aid the grass before it enters waterways.

And while we’re obviously biased in favor of our products, we wouldn’t be offended if you opt to install a buffer strip of cover crops between you and a watershed, in order to provide similar biological cleanup services.

The water we collectively use to grow our plants, and ourselves is at risk. Fertilize responsibly so your children can farm the same plot, and drink from the same watersheds.

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