Dividing the House

Dividing the House

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Abraham Lincoln quoted this indisputable truth in reference to the issue of slavery.  Although unlikely to lead to civil war, the debate between urban water use and rural land use is an ever increasing concern.

The issue has come to head in Iowa and may be fought in court.  The city of Des Moines plans to file a federal lawsuit against three upstream neighboring counties for failure to regulate and prevent agricultural products from polluting Des Moines’ water supply.  Specifically, Des Moines seeks an order requiring the county drainage districts to regulate agricultural runoff like other wastewater under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Agriculture is generally exempt from the CWA because agricultural runoff is considered a “non-point source” of pollution.  A “point source” of pollution is basically pollution that comes from a pipe.  Des Moines claims that water and pollutants that drain from agricultural land through a farmer’s subsurface tiling system qualifies as a “point source” since the pollution flows and exits from a “pipe”.

Des Moines also claims it has recently incurred $4,000 per day in increased costs and expenses to remove agricultural pollutants, such as nitrogen, from the Des Moines water supply.  Des Moines fears the city may be required to build another denitrification facility if the increase in agricultural pollution continues.

Des Moines will have the tough job of  persuading a judge the agricultural runoff that flows through the subsurface tile system does not fall under the “agricultural storm water” or irrigation “return flows” exemptions.  Considering agriculture’s economic impact in Iowa, Des Moines will also have a difficult time finding support outside the metro area.  Siding with agriculture, Governor Terry Branstad commented Des Moines has “declared war on rural Iowa.”

Eventually urban and rural Iowa are going to have to solve the water and land use divide.  Otherwise, Iowa’s house will not stand.

For more information on Des Moines proposed lawsuit see Brett Walton’s article in Circle of Blue