Many municipalities throughout the US draw their raw drinking water from rivers. It is, therefore, the responsibility of city utilities to ensure that the finished drinking water meets the safety standards for several potentially toxic contaminants. However, in most cases the pollutants that find their way into the source water intakes of municipal drinking water treatment plants come from upstream. This begs the question of who is ultimately responsible for contaminated water that utilities must deal with.
This question was answered recently in the form of a law suit filed by the City of Des Moines, Iowa intended to make upstream polluters culpable for the pollution they send downstream. Due to recent high concentrations of nitrate in the Racoon River, the Water Works Plant of Des Moines filed a law suit in early January against three upstream counties. The Water Works spent nearly one million dollars in 2013 treating source water to reduce concentrations in finished water below the maximum contaminant level of 10 mg/L. Nitrates increase dramatically in water when manure and other fertilizers from farm fields drain into waterways during periods of high precipitation. In spite of voluntary efforts to reduce runoff from agricultural lands, concentrations in late 2014 forced the utility to spend about $4,000 per day for nitrate reduction procedures. The lawsuit targets several drainage districts feeding into the North Raccoon River that are managed by the three counties.
Speaking to a reporter for the Des Moines Register, Graham Gillette, chairman of the waterworks board, said that “We’re really out there to seek this permitting and regulatory process. This isn’t about us recouping losses or protecting our individual asset. It’s about protecting Iowa waterways.” In a statement to the Register, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey called the waterworks’ threat of litigation “the wrong approach to address the important issue of improving water quality.” “Working with farmers and investing in additional conservation practices are what is needed.” However, city stakeholders disagreed. Several speakers from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement applauded the move. Barbara Lang, CCI member, proposed that “Farmers who pollute need to pay for the cleanup. Not the 500,000 people in this community or other communities.” Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, told the Register that the issue has merit. The case in Iowa demonstrates the complexity of rights and responsibilities for stakeholders who depend on the common resource provided by the watershed.