Who will pay for water pollution cleanup divides urban and rural Iowa


JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week, we aired a report about new and old technologies being used to help clean up water runoff in the nation's heartland.

Tonight, a second report about water and the tensions between rural agriculture and urban areas over keeping it clean.

From Detroit Public Television, David Biello reports, as part of the documentary "The Ethanol Effect."

DAVID BIELLO: In Des Moines, Iowa, Adam Mason is preparing dinner, washing vegetables with tap water.

ADAM MASON: For a lot of folks, it's easy just to turn on the tap and trust that you have clean water. There's nearly a half-million Iowans who are drinking water and who are vulnerable.

DAVID BIELLO: Part of the cause of Adam's concern can be found 150 miles away from Des Moines in Storm Lake, Iowa. Storm Lake is located in Buena Vista County, home to some of the richest farmland in the country.

Corn is king here, grown mostly for animal feed and ethanol. Corn doesn't like to have its feet wet, and to keep the fields dry, pipes have been installed to drain water off the fields. And with that water goes the fertilizer, fertilizer laden with nitrate.

BILL STOWE, Des Moines Water Works: We have eight units here constructed in about 1990-1992, before they became operational.

DAVID BIELLO: Bill Stowe is the chief executive officer of the Des Moines Water Works.

BILL STOWE: The big challenge cleaning up the water in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, the rivers that we take from, they're surface waters going through 10,000 square miles of industrial agriculture upstream, is the effects of that industrial agriculture on water quality.

We're seeing water that's so dirty, that we have to build facilities like this, which arguably is the world's largest nitrate-removal facility, to be able to clean up the water to deliver it safely to our customers here in Central Iowa.

DAVID BIELLO: Nitrate is a dangerous chemical in drinking water; it stops oxygen from entering the human bloodstream.

The nitrate-removal facility is at capacity and aging, and it may soon be overwhelmed. The Des Moines Water Works wants to have the fertilizer runoff regulated as pollution under the federal Clean Water Act, and has filed a lawsuit against three rural Iowa counties, claiming that the nitrate they're removing is a result of runoff from fields upstream.

DALE ARENDS, Buena Vista County Supervisor: This is not Iowa nice.

DAVID BIELLO: Dale Arends is a member of the Board of Supervisors in Buena Vista County. He's named in the lawsuit.

DALE ARENDS: This would change agriculture if Des Moines Water Works gets what they want. If they were able to come out here and tell us how much water we could remove from our soils to make them farmable, you would turn Central Iowa back into a swamp, which is what it was 150 years ago.

DAVID BIELLO: For the lawsuit to be successful, a court must first decide if the fertilizer-rich water running off the fields comes from under the ground. If a court decides it is groundwater, then Bill Stowe and the Des Moines Water Works have a valid case.

If a court decides the runoff is storm water running off the surface of the fields, then Des Moines Water Works has no case.

Doug Gross is the legal counsel for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa.

DOUG GROSS, Agribusiness Association of Iowa: This is like a prairie fire in Iowa, in that we haven't seen anything like this for a long time, where one component of the state is really directly challenging the most important industry in our state, and has been since the founding of the state of Iowa, which is agriculture.

DAVID BIELLO: Around the country, environmental activists are watching the lawsuit, and big ag has raised a lot of money to help the counties fight it. That's because Iowa isn't the only state feeling the effects of agricultural pollution.

In the Great Lakes, excess fertilizer spills into Lake Erie near Toledo, where charter boat captain Paul Pacholski makes a living.

PAUL PACHOLSKI, Charter Boat Captain: Within 24 hours of the water coming out a drain tile of a farm, it can be at the mouth of the Lake Erie. It's called the nutrient superhighway.

DAVID BIELLO: Great for algae.

PAUL PACHOLSKI: Great for algae.

DAVID BIELLO: That algae is toxic. It thrives on the fertilizer running off the farm fields. In 2014, a massive algal bloom shut down the city of Toledo's water supply for three days. It's also bad for Paul's business.

PAUL PACHOLSKI: Do you want to go to an area that you have got to worry about your health afterwards, or do you want to go to an area that is pristine and beautiful with the good clear water?

DAVID BIELLO: Some Great Lakes states have begun to take steps to control fertilizer runoff, and Iowa has a voluntary program in place, called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Bill Northey is Iowa's secretary of agriculture.

BILL NORTHEY, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture: Our nutrient reduction strategy started four years ago. The lawsuit started a year ago. So we were in process of engaging folks.

DAVID BIELLO: So, would you encourage Des Moines Water Works to just drop the suit?

BILL NORTHEY: I would be very glad if the suit went away. I think it's a big distraction. I think it's expensive. I think that money could be better spent on engaging producers and engaging urban areas on water quality.

BILL STOWE: It's the ag folks that really are driving this problem. And, in this state, we regulate, and some would argue over-regulate, cities and towns. But we leave unregulated industrial agriculture.

And, of course, agriculture is the king of the block. Therefore, leave it alone, and hopefully a voluntary system will bring in conservation practices that will improve water quality. We say, no pun intended, hogwash to that, hasn't worked, won't work.

DALE ARENDS: They have forced themselves to spend over three-quarters-of-a-million dollars. They have forced us to spend over a million dollars, and nothing has really changed.

DAVID BIELLO: Dale Arends isn't the only one raising his voice.

NARRATOR: Bill Stowe forced a double-digit increase in water fees, while he is set to receive a $500,000 bonus.

DAVID BIELLO: A group called the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water is fighting the lawsuit like a political campaign. It's running anti-Stowe TV ads.

The lawsuit could be tied up in court for years, maybe even a decade. That leaves the fate of Adam Mason and other customers of the Des Moines Water Works up in the air.

ADAM MASON: It's no longer whether or not we have a water crisis. Everyone acknowledges we're in a water crisis now. The question is, how do we fix it and who's going to pay?

DAVID BIELLO: For the "PBS NewsHour, I'm David Biello in Des Moines, Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to learn about technologies farmers in the Nebraska and Iowa are using to reduce agricultural contaminants in water, visit PBS.org/NewsHour.

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