Sierra Club moves to block Pattison’s water export proposal

By: - October 13, 2020 11:56 am

The Jordan Aquifer, shown in yellow, is a key well water source across the state. A Clayton sand mining operation wanted to send water from its Jordan wells to dry western states by rail tankers. (Map courtesy of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources)

Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton has appealed the state’s triple rejection of its permit application to export Iowa water to western states by rail, and the Sierra Club has intervened to oppose the permit.

The nonprofit environmental group on Tuesday noted it had filed an intervention with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, which plans to hold a hearing on the matter Nov. 9-10. 

“Our public resources are not for sale and should not be used for private profits,” said Jess Mazour, conservation coordinator for the Iowa Sierra Club. 

Sierra Club contends Pattison’s plan would hurt other users of the Jordan Aquifer. The state has restricted use of the Jordan in places because the aquifer is heavily used and slow to refill as rain seeps through deep rocky layers. 

The Jordan is near the surface in Clayton County, meaning it would recharge more quickly, but the state geologist still has raised questions about Pattison’s plan. Pattison has contended the operation would not have a significant effect on water supplies. 

At one point the company had discussed exporting as much as 2 billion gallons a year, then proposed much smaller amounts.

“Pattison’s legal argument is that Pattison owns the water under its land. But Iowa law is clear that groundwater is a public resource for the benefit of all Iowans,” Sierra Club lawyer Wally Taylor said in a statement.

Pattison has proposed exporting hundreds of millions of gallons of water to western states via rail. The company has said it hoped the new business would help it rehire dozens of workers laid off as demand for oil dropped. Pattison had sold sand used in fracking operations. 

“Pattison Sand now appears to be lobbying the governor’s office to pressure (the Iowa Department of Natural Resources) to allow them to evade current regulations, like showing a beneficial use of public resources, and by redirecting water they currently pump from the mining operation into the Mississippi River to be shipped and sold out-of-state,” Sierra Club said in a statement. 

Pat Garrett, an aide to Gov. Kim Reynolds, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. DNR Director Kayla Lyon, a Reynolds appointee, has opposed the Pattison permit.   

Stefanie Bond, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Inspections Appeals, did not immediately return a call seeking confirmation of the hearing.

Pattison attorney James Pray of Des Moines has argued that the DNR is violating the company’s constitutional rights, including the commerce clause. “We did appeal,” Pray said Tuesday, without elaborating. 

In an April letter to the state, Pray wrote, “Perhaps the most important fact is that the DNR has already stated in Pattison Sand’s current permit that the Jordan Aquifer in this area is unconfined and that the Jordan Aquifer rules do not apply to the particular area around Pattison Sand’s operations. What Pattison wants to do is harness that resource for purposes that can serve both Iowans facing severe water shortages and non-Iowans who desperately need water for their communities.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.