Des Moines versus Goliath: drinking water supplier tired of paying for algae mess it didn't make
It was a matter of time, really. There is only so long we can continue our collective head-in-the-sand response to the nation's nutrient pollution crisis before those shelling out money to deal with the problem start asking the responsible parties to foot the bill. Our nation's plague of nutrient-fueled green slime is not just an assault on our senses, but an assault on our collective pocketbooks. Nutrient pollution has been estimated to cost the country $4.3 billion annually, a cost paid by the fishing industry, the tourism industry - and the water supply entities forced to pay for expensive solutions to keep the potable water flowing. Des Moines Water Works recounts in its notice letter spending $4.1 million to build a nitrate removal facility, which costs $7,000 a day to operate. And let's not forget Toledo, which lost its water supply entirely for 3 days last summer when the mats of green algae choking western Lake Erie collided with its drinking water intake and spiked the levels of algal toxins to dangerous levels. Toledo has doubled its water treatment budget in recent years, to $4 million annually, in response to the problem.
So we can cheer on the scrappy Water Works for taking on the
goliath agricultural industry. But we should also remember that litigation is a last resort, the tool you use when every other tool is broken. That, sadly, is the state we're in with nutrient pollution, but it doesn't have to be that way. EPA has the tools at its disposal to tackle the problem in a sensible, comprehensive manner. Yet it refuses to use them, shrinking before the power of the agricultural industry that Des Moines is bravely standing up to. As we have said numerous times in this space, EPA could develop federal numeric water quality standards for nutrients where states have not (and most of them have not), which would enable strict point source limits and create the firm benchmarks necessary to address agricultural pollution. Yet we have had to force the Agency in litigation to even respond to our question whether that step is necessary.
But as Des Moines' lawsuit reminds us, ignoring costs does not make them go away. The nutrient crisis is huge and pervasive and getting more so, as climate change warms our waters and increases the frequency and severity of harmful algal blooms. Someone is going to have to pay the bill for this. And we can't blame Des Moines for wanting that someone to be an industry that has been running up the tab.
Photos: sustainablewater.org, US EPA