© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Des Moines Water Works Adapts COVID-19 and Water Quality Plans

Clay Masters

The state's largest water utility has changed how it staffs its water treatment facility since the beginning of the pandemic. The utility's CEO also says they are working to find a collaborative path forward between legislation and litigation to address water quality issues in central Iowa in 2021.

The state’s largest water utility has adapted its COVID-19 response plan since the pandemic began in March of last year. Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan said he’s anticipating his staff will start to be vaccinated in the third round of vaccine distribution. But he said employees will not be required to get the shot.

“We’re certainly going to encourage all of our folks to be vaccinated,” Corrigan said. “We’re going to facilitate vaccination by allowing folks to do it on work time or even bringing vaccinations on site like we sometimes do with flu shots.”

As many as 23 water works employees were taking shifts sleeping and living in campers 24-7 on site at the outset of the pandemic. Corrigan said that lasted about 8 weeks. During that time, they learned to separate staff and have some people work from home to return to more normal operations. Corrigan said about 10 percent of his 210 employees have contracted COVID-19 but there has been no on-site transmission of the virus.

The Des Moines Water Works is also focused on what it can do to improve water quality in central Iowa in the New Year.

The utility could not use one of its main sources for drinking water for over two months in 2020.

Residents in the Des Moines metro get their drinking water from the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. The Des Moines River was “essentially unusable” as a source late last summer and into fall.

“We had microcystin concentrations in the Des Moines River at our intake that were above the EPA health advisory level for drinking water for 110 days in a row,” Corrigan said.

Microcystin is a compound produced by cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as blue-green algae, according to Des Moines Water Works.

The utility currently doesn’t have a way to treat that problem. Corrigan said the utility is looking for a path between legislation and litigation to promote clean water in central Iowa.

A federal judge dismissed a Des Moines Water Works' lawsuit against drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties that the utility claimed are funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River. Meanwhile, water quality advocates are suing state officials to force mandatory regulation on farmers.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.