In 2015, the Des Moines Water Works, Iowa’s largest water utility, filed a lawsuit against three upstream drainage district in three counties, citing that for years they’d been polluting their city’s drinking water with nitrate from fertilizer runoff on agricultural land leaching into local waterways. Nitrates in drinking water can pose serious health risks, so Des Moines Waterworks built one of the largest nitrate removal facilities in the world. In 2013 alone, the utility spent nearly a million dollars on nitrate removal. While federal clean water laws exempt agricultural runoff and Iowa’s clean water program is voluntary, Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe hopes to force these upstream counties to treat farmers as any other industry and clean their agricultural runoff before it enters local rivers.

“Most Iowa citizens don’t know a lot about what’s in our water and where it comes from. It’s important for Iowans to know what they are drinking so they can make informed decisions involving water quality and other environmental issues.”

– Isabel, Ames High School Student

“Water quality in Iowa is important because it affects my health and everybody that drinks water.”

-Alec, Ames High School Student

Ames High School students use Project Localize to look at water quality in their state.

In the fall of 2015 students at Iowa’s Ames High School worked closely with three teachers to use Project Localize for a year-long class project investigating the impact of industrial agriculture on Iowa water quality. They researched the state’s rich agricultural history, interviewed farmers, water quality experts, and environmental attorneys, then translated the ideas of these innovative thinkers into information artworks that graphically depict the agricultural practices responsible for Iowa’s poor water quality as well as the numerous solutions which could be put in place to make farmers better land and water stewards.

To complete their work with Project Localize, students then collected these works in a traveling exhibit that toured the state in events that engaged local farmers, land grant university research scientists, extension agents, and government officials. Their goal: to change the way people use this valuable public resource.

PL_logo_no_addressPROJECT LOCALIZE is an educational program that helps classrooms identify and promote sustainable economic, cultural and social progress in their communities. Students research what happens in a locally-based food system, conduct interviews with food producers, farmers, and key stakeholders at the local level, then turn their findings into information artworks that illustrate what sustainability looks like in their own backyards. This project-based learning experience concludes by showing students how to share their findings with a series of pop up shows and public events that put a name and a face on food in their communities.

2color_transparentwhite-01Mike Todd, Joe Brekke and Chad Zmolek are the co-founders of the Bluestem Institute, a service-learning cohort of seniors at Ames High School enrolled in the Integrated Capstone Seminar (ICS).
During an integrated, three-period block each day, Bluestem students earn credits in English, Environmental Science, Government and Sociology through a combination of hands-on, project-based learning experiences and formal classroom studies. This structure offers teachers and students the flexibility to transcend the traditional classroom environment and engage the community through regular field studies and project collaborations. As the capstone of an intensive, year-long investigation of social, cultural and environmental issues that face our global community, Bluestem students will have the opportunity to explore their own role as civic leaders by completing a community impact project and become active participants in the production of their own knowledge. The Integrated Capstone Seminar (ICS) invites senior students to explore the role of the individual in society and to develop the skills necessary to thrive in an ever-changing world. By examining the personal, social, cultural, and scientific implications of our daily choices, we aspire to facilitate a public expression of students’ personal ethics and help them begin to answer the question, “How should I live?”

Douglas Gayeton

Douglas Gayeton

Joe Brekke

Joe Brekke

Mike Todd

Mike Todd

Chad Zmolek

Chad Zmolek

“Placing importance on water quality now will lessen the chance of a greater disaster happening in the future.”

– Alex, Ames High School Student
Traveling around Iowa felt like sitting down in front of a fire with your Grandparents and hearing stories. People told us what they valued most, and it was up to us to decide what we valued. The perspectives that we were offered were so diverse and so nuanced that our eyes could not help but be opened to the complex reality that is our water.
Max Ames High School Student

Max_tondo

During the research phase, I was surprised to discover that the experts in our fields of study really enjoyed talking about what they do and what they know. It was also a unique experience to record their words, revise their words, and get their feedback multiple times before displaying them.
Caleb Ames High School Student

Caleb

WATER76_PBL

Information Artworks by Douglas Gayeton

“Project Localize gives students the tools to own instead of merely learn information by combining scientific research, journalism, photography, graphic design, service learning and public advocacy into a single project-based learning experience.”

– Douglas Gayeton, Project Localize
Making the information artworks was a testament to the power of revision. Every time we thought we were finished with the process another fixable detail appeared to us. We were encouraged to strive for excellence by never being satisfied with what we’d accomplished. This could become frustrating at times but the final product turned out so much better as a result of those efforts. The result was a so-called “school project” we could finally take pride in.
Ben Ames High School Student

Ben_S

Making the informational artworks was core to telling the story of Iowa’s water. I had seen other artwork from the Lexicon, but wasn’t prepared for the vast array of work and learning needed to create one myself. Leaving the classroom, meeting professionals, and working with the Lexicon of Sustainability taught me so much more than I’ve ever learned in a traditional lecture and test environment.
Jay Ames High School Student

Jay

Lexicon of Solutions to Iowa’s
Clean Drinking Water Problems

INFORMATION ARTWORKS BY STUDENTS AT BLUESTEM INSTITUTE

PL_AMES4_CITIZENSUIT

CITIZEN SUIT
Citizens are allowed to sue those who go over the set limits for pollution or who do not have permits. Bill Stowe is suing drainage districts located in Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties to have regulations enforced on the tiles from agricultural land in that area.

POINT SOURCE
Defined by the EPA as “any single identifiable source from from which pollutants are discharged.” Currently, drainage tiles are not considered “point source.”

EPA CLEAN WATER ACT
Gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set maximum levels of pollution allowed from point sources. According to this law, permits have to be obtained before pollutants can be discharged.

Students from Ames, who may be affected by this lawsuit, are learning of the poor water quality in their state. In this building, one of the world’s largest nitrate removal facilities, Bill Stowe can see every bit of the pollution from upstream, as he removes it for the city of Des Moines, and dumps it back in the river to get rid of it.

“It’s very clear to me that traditional, industrial agriculture has no real interest in taking the steps that are necessary to radically change their operations in a way that will protect our drinking water. If Des Moines Water Works prevails in the lawsuit, the drainage districts will become regulated under the Clean Water Act as ‘point sources.’ The districts will be required to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits to discharge pollutants into Iowa’s waterways — just like any other regulated entity. Nationally, these permits have been successful in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge. This same success could be achieved by controlling agricultural discharge in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. Such a landmark ruling could change agriculture across the nation,” says Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works.

Des Moines Water Works
28 September 2015

The Ames High School Bluestem Institute student work includes eye-catching graphics with insightful representation of the complex science and policy of Iowa’s water quality crisis. The projects are an outstanding example of factual and artistic outreach.
Bill Stowe CEO of Des Moines Water Works

Bill-Stowe_tondo

Nitrogen Leaching

Nitrogen Leaching

TILING

TILING

SUBSURFACE FLOW

SUBSURFACE FLOW

DRAINAGE DISTRICT

DRAINAGE DISTRICT

NITRATE

NITRATE

HABER-BOSCH PROCESS

HABER-BOSCH PROCESS

POINT SOURCE

POINT SOURCE

NATIONAL POLLUTION DISCHARGE ELIMINATION SYSTEM

NATIONAL POLLUTION DISCHARGE ELIMINATION SYSTEM

MAXIMUM CONTAMINANT LEVEL

MAXIMUM CONTAMINANT LEVEL

NITRATE REMOVAL FACILITY

NITRATE REMOVAL FACILITY

IOWATER

IOWATER

MANDATORY RULES AND REGULATIONS

MANDATORY RULES AND REGULATIONS

IOWA CODE CHAPTER 455B

IOWA CODE CHAPTER 455B

SOIL DEPLETION

SOIL DEPLETION

NUTRIENT SEQUESTRATION

NUTRIENT SEQUESTRATION

BIOLOGICAL FIXATION

BIOLOGICAL FIXATION

NITROGEN FIXATION

NITROGEN FIXATION

NITROGEN BUDGETING

NITROGEN BUDGETING

IOWA NUTRIENT REDUCTION STRATEGY

IOWA NUTRIENT REDUCTION STRATEGY

PRACTICAL FARMERS OF IOWA

PRACTICAL FARMERS OF IOWA

AGRICULTURE CONSERVATION PLANNING FRAMEWORKS

AGRICULTURE CONSERVATION PLANNING FRAMEWORKS

COVER CROPS

COVER CROPS

PRAIRIE STRIPS

PRAIRIE STRIPS

NUTRIENT REDUCTION WETLAND

NUTRIENT REDUCTION WETLAND

RIPARIAN BUFFER

RIPARIAN BUFFER

SATURATED BUFFER

SATURATED BUFFER

DENITRIFYING BIOREACTOR

DENITRIFYING BIOREACTOR

“To Iowans, healthy water is necessary for our standards of living both practically and spiritually, providing sustenance but also recreation and beauty. To our neighbors downstream, Iowa’s water is just as much theirs, so it is our duty to ensure healthy water extends beyond our borders.”

– Aaron, Ames High School Student
Complex communication, flexibility and adaptability, creativity are just a few of the many skills I have learned through this
class.
Swaesy Ames High School Student

Swaesy

At the Iowa Water Conference, I was overwhelmed by the realization that all our struggles had brought us to the point where we were prepared to interact with real people about real issues and help make real change. I never anticipated such an opportunity.
Caleb Ames High School Student

Caleb

At the Iowa Water Conference I shared my story and knowledge with farmers, city planners, lobbyists, and self-proclaimed “environmental nerds.” This all puts a smile on my face because I’m proud of what we were able to do at this conference. I saw my classmates, my groupmates, and myself successfully communicate what we knew through several interactions.
Jack Ames High School Student

Jack_W

After all of the exposure and practice we have had with universal constructs, at the Iowa Water Conference I found that Flexibility and Adaptability were the most at-play and helped me to use my other skills most effectively.
Mattie Ames High School Student

Mattie

I have learned a great deal about group work and have opened up and become more willing to work in groups. I have learned a lot about communication and how effective and important it is. I never experienced projects like these where communication is absolutely necessary for the completion of them.
Molly Ames High School Students

Molly

Throughout the process of completing these projects, I have realized that even when I think I should quit and give up, I now know that on a educational level I can push through the stress and conquer my anxiety.
Jackson Ames High School Student

Jackson_S

Bluestem/Project Localize Exhibitions

DATELOCATIONEVENTCONTACT
3/23/2016Iowa State University / Scheman Bldg.10th Annual Iowa Water ConferenceMelissa Miller, Iowa Water Center
4/11/2016Iowa State CapitolBrittany Gallagher / Linda Kinman
5/11/2016Ames Public LibraryBluestem Community Impact Project ExhibitionDirector Lynne Carey
4/22/2016Ames High Media CenterAmes High Earth Day ExpoIzze/Zoey/Karin/Hannah
4/29/2016Dahl Centennial UnionLuther CollegeJody Enos-Berlage, Biology Professor
4/30/2016Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning CenterDinner on the BluffStephanie Davidson, Public Programs Coordinator
6/3/2016Ames, IA - DowntownArt Walk AmesMattie KupfernSandi Risdal - Director - Habitat for Humanity, Ames
6/28/2016Des Moines Water Works Board RoomDMWWB Meeting 3:30pmLAURA SARCONE | Communications CoordinatornDes Moines Water Works
8/10/2016Big Spring Trout Hatchery / Elkader, IA2nd Annual Landowner Appreciation DaynnBig Spring Appreciation DayGary Siegwarth
10/6/2016Des MoinesIowa Environmental Council Fall ConferenceAnn Y. RobinsonnAgriculture Policy Specialist | Iowa Environmental Council

AMES HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

portraits by Benjamin Sulzberger

Karin

Karin

Zoey

Zoey

Timothy

Timothy

Swaesy

Swaesy

Sophie

Sophie

Selena

Selena

Sam

Sam

Robby

Robby

Raegan

Raegan

Molly

Molly

Moe

Moe

Mike

Mike

Michael

Michael

Megan

Megan

Maxwell

Maxwell

Mattie

Mattie

Louis

Louis

Lena

Lena

Lee

Lee

Kylie

Kylie

Kenneth

Kenneth

Justin

Justin

Justin

Justin

Joey

Joey

Jay

Jay

Jackson

Jackson

Jackson

Jackson

Jack

Jack

Jack

Jack

Isabel

Isabel

Hannah

Hannah

Haley

Haley

Frank

Frank

Derek

Derek

Dawson

Dawson

Caleb

Caleb

Brycen

Brycen

Britney

Britney

Blake

Blake

Ben

Ben

Austin

Austin

Alyssa

Alyssa

Alex

Alex

Alec

Alec

Aaron

Aaron

“The experience I had today was one of a kind, and I am so very grateful that I was given the opportunity to learn, present, and discuss real issues with real people who are making real change! It has been a struggle to get to this point, but that struggle has culminated in something real and something powerful.”

– Caleb, Ames High School Student

PROJECT ASSISTANCE AND SUPPORT

Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy
Currie Wille & Associates
Gibralter Farms
Iowa Association of Water Agencies
Southfork Watershed Alliance
Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Iowa State University
Xerces Society
City of Ames
IOWATER
Des Moines Water Works
USDA
Iowa Water Center
Polk County Conservation
Practical Farmers of Iowa
Buena Vista County
Mustard Seed Community Farm
Iowa Soybean Association

Resources

nitratefacility

What is a Nitrate Removal Facility?

Download and share the PDF

guidetolawsuit

Your Guide to the Water Works Law Suit

 

Download and Share the PDF

CWC_Logo_1800x360

Weblinks

Courtesy of Jennifer Wilson, the Iowa-based author of

WATER, a novel about the Des Moines Waterworks Lawsuit.

NEWS STORIES AND EDITORIALS

“Water Works Lawsuit Started Overdue Discussion”, Mark Gannon, February 4, 2016, Des Moines Register

“How Do We Fix Iowa’s Nitrate Pollution?”Donelle Eller, September 13, 2015, Des Moines Register

“Can this Genius Strategy Stop Big Ag from Dumping Fertilizer Into Drinking Water?”, Tom Philpott, Sept/Oct 2015, Mother Jones

“Editorial: Iowa waterways are a disgrace”, the Register’s editorial board, August 22, 2015, Des Moines Register

“Toxic Algae Closing Iowa Beaches at Record Numbers”, Donelle Eller, August 14, 2015, Des Moines Register

“Finding Common Ground in Fight Over Iowa’s Water”, Kyle Munson, May 24, 2015, Des Moines Register

“The Real Story on Nitrate Levels in Iowa’s Rivers”, Donelle Eller, April 13, 2015, Des Moines Register

“Death Tax Killing American Family Farms?”, Mark Koba, April 13, 2015, Fortune

“Obama’s Proposed 68% Death Tax Would Be Highest in World”, Robert Wood, Feb. 3, 2015, Forbes

“The Quest for Sustainable Corn in Iowa”, June 12, 2014, National Geographic

GLOBAL WATER ISSUES

“Collecting Water: The Role of Women & Children”

“In Flint, Michigan, Overpriced Water Causing People’s Skin to Erupt in Rashes and Hair to Fall Out,” Curt Guyette, July 16, 2015, The Nation

“Obama Declares State of Emergency Over Flint’s Contaminated Water,” Camila Domonoske, January 16, 2016, National Public Radio

“Water Affordability Spotlighted on Capitol Hill,” Jessica L. Atcheson, February 27, 2015, UUSC

NITRATES AND FARMING

EPA Nitrates Summary

Incidence and geographical distribution of sudden infant death syndrome in relation to content of nitrate in drinking water and groundwater levels.

Nitrate Defined and Sources, Portage County Government, Wisconsin

“Indirect nitrous oxide emissions from streams within the US Corn Belt scale with stream order” (translation: we get a lot more nitrate pollution than we think), National Academy of Sciences

How Sprawl Affects Water Supply, AmericanRivers.org

“How Much of the Earth is Covered in Water?” American Water Works Association

Water Resources, Water Quality, EPA

“Reducing Agriculture’s Nitrogen Footprint: Are New Policy Approaches Needed?” Marc Ribaudo, September 1, 2011, USDA

Family Farm Agricultural Census Date, USDA

FURTHER READING

“The Trouble with Iowa,” Richard Manning, February 2016, Harper’s

“The Flint Water Crisis, Explained,” Libby Nelson, February 15, 2016, VOX

“How Tap Water Became Toxic in Flint, Michigan,” Sara Ganim and Linh Tran, January 13, 2016, CNN Online

“4 Things Need to Happen to End California’s Drought,” Brian Clark Howard, January 7, 2016

Freshwater Crisis, National Geographic