Talking with Graham Gillette
What is Des Moines Water Works?
It’s a five-member board appointed by the mayor. We’re an independent entity that provides drinking water to 500,000 people in Des Moines and the surrounding communities. We're not a city department—we’re owned by the people of Des Moines. We've been organized this way for over 100 years.
Going back through that history, how has development impacted local waterways?
At one point, northern Iowa was all swamp. In the late 1800s, a public works project drained land for farming. They put clay tile into the ground to seep swamp water into the rivers. As farmers laid drainage tile, quasi-government entities called drainage districts were created. Farmers own the land, but drainage districts make decisions about moving water. Those drainage districts still exist.
In the 1950s, families had relatively small plots. As time went on, we needed to feed more people, we needed to produce more food. Technology improved crop yields. Fertilizers were invented. Now we’ve got large animal operations, and others, moving fertilizer and waste very quickly from farmland into our rivers.
Des Moines is downstream from the largest farming operations in the world. As water filtered through natural sediment, nitrate got filtered out in the ground cover. That ground got more nitrate-infused as years went by.
And nitrate concentration is why you got involved in the clean water fight.
Nitrate is naturally occurring. Leaves breaking down can cause nitrate. Concentrations elevate when farming is involved. Large animal confinement operations do a lot of harm. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure this out: You get thousands of animals on a small plot of land, there’s going to be a lot of shit, and it’s going to flow downstream. Then there’s fertilizer that’s applied to crops.
In 2015, we saw nitrate concentrations that exceeded Clean Water Act limits. Removing nitrate costs millions of dollars. So we launched a federal lawsuit, suing the drainage districts under the Clean Water Act, which regulates all discharges into waterways. Everybody has to meet certain standards—but one exemption is agriculture.
Why aren’t farms held to the same standard as, say, automakers?
It's politics. Especially in Iowa, where agriculture is so important to our lives. The Iowa Farm Bureau carries a lot of weight, and it's understandable. So many jobs are connected to that. Our identities are attached to agriculture.
There’s this mindset that once regulations go into effect, it's bad for those who have to live by them. I disagree. Regulations are best when they apply equally. We all benefit when regulations are even across the board, but they're not right now, because some industries have to play by the rules and some don't.
Your lawsuit targeted drainage districts, not polluters themselves. Why?
We contended that the drainage districts were responsible for what was being discharged into the waters. So, instead of suing a farmer or group of farmers, we sued the entities that should be in charge. We figured that would be the most efficient way to solve this problem, and we saw relief in that regulations would apply to drainage districts as they would to anybody else. We're not exactly radicals. We went ahead because nothing was more vital to our customers than safe, affordable, clean drinking water.
The Iowa Supreme Court had to decide if drainage districts could be held responsible, financially, in a case like this. And in a ruling that I still disagree with, the Court decided they couldn't. I felt then, and still do, that we had strong grounds for appeal, but I couldn’t convince my board. We needed three votes. We got two continue to an appeal. I understand. A political fight like this is bigger than we are.
Did those high nitrate concentrations cause health problems in the area?
This is tricky. It takes a long time to track health impacts of pollution. Cancer clusters are hard to prove. The same can be said about nitrate concentrations. It's almost a distraction to go looking for those clusters, because the evidence is already there. Go to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and track those pollutants. They came from Iowa and other agriculture states. That should be enough reason for us to act.
Tell me about this dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Fertilizer and pesticides seep from Iowa fields into rivers. Those pollutants flow through our rivers into the Mississippi River, then have a direct shot to the Gulf of Mexico. As nitrates accumulate, it removes oxygen from the water. Plants and fish can’t survive. There’s no life there. Fishermen have to keep going farther out for their daily catch.
So we need to act now. Even though it’s going to cost money, and it’s going to make farming more difficult—it’ll make a lot of things more difficult. But it’s the best thing to do for human life, and the rest of life on this planet.
What’s the biggest culprit in agricultural water pollution?
Pesticides and fertilizers are equally troublesome. The biggest culprit is us. We need to pay attention.
Right. I use water every day, but I don’t really think about it.
It’s easy to forget. You turn on the tap, you get clean water, you turn it off. We take it for granted. Organizations like the Des Moines Water Works need to do a better job of informing the public that we need help in this fight.
That's important to me. Our board decided to file a lawsuit to make regulations universal for those discharging. We did so in the interest of the people. It takes people to begin those fights. And it takes political organizations coming together, so the Water Works isn't alone in its lawsuit, or in lobbying Congress. That's how we're going to make a difference. A group of us has to start, but we can't let leaders be alone. We have to join them in order to win this fight in the long term.