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Bill to Break Up Des Moines Water Works Might Also End its Lawsuit Against Rural Counties

Clay Masters
The entrance at Des Moines Water Works Headquarters south of downtown Des Moines.

A bill in the Iowa legislature would break up the Des Moines Water Works board and replace it with a regional water authority. Those who support the bill say it will update a 100-year-old system for delivering water to the growing metro and its suburbs. Critics say the bill is really about stopping a controversial lawsuit from the Des Moines Water Works targeting large scale agriculture.

Two years ago, the state’s largest water utility sued three rural northwest Iowa counties.

The Des Moines Water Works says field runoff in that region is allowing high nitrate levels into the Raccoon River.  That’s one of the sources the utility uses to supply its 500,000 customers with drinking water.

Large agriculture groups (like Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers Association) and Gov. Terry Branstad do not like that lawsuit.

Now, Jarad Klein, a Republican lawmaker and hog farmer from eastern Iowa, has introduced a bill that would dismantle the independent board that governs the utility.

“The lawsuit is not is mentioned,” Rep. Klein of Keota says. “Those are all decisions for the people who are on the board.”

Currently, board members are appointed by the mayor of Des Moines, which approved the utility filing the lawsuit. The bill would hand control of the utility’s $250 million in assets to a new board.  It would be made up of local municipalities including surrounding suburbs which buy water from the utility.

Klein says he’s been hearing from people around the metro who are saying their rates are going up and “we have no say in anything that’s going on.”

Credit Clay Masters / IPR
Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe reacting to the Iowa Supreme Court opinion that says Iowa drainage districts are not liable for damages caused by farm runoff. 1/27/2017

“At least have the courage to say this really is about our dislike for Des Moines Water Works and their clean water litigation,” says Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe.

Under the legislation, Stowe could be fired at-will and the lawsuit could be dissolved.  Stowe says in the short term the law would be devastating to capital improvements. He says it would stand in the way of replacing water mains before they break or improving technology to clean the water

“[It] reminds those of us in our business very much of the state intrusion and over reach that happened in Michigan,” Stowe says. “That ultimately led to a chain of events that created significant public health problems for residents of Flint, Michigan.”

Meanwhile, the city of Des Moines has registered in support of the legislation.

“Now is the time to make the decision to regionalize,” says Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders.

Sanders says without a regional board you could have the surrounding suburbs and companies that currently purchase water from Des Moines Water Works in a competition.

“All competing to have that next source further up the river,” Sanders says. “The best location for wells and possibly controlling that land and that access for their own need and their own need only.”

But Des Moines Senator Matt McCoy says the city’s formal support is like surrendering before the first shot has been fired. There’s a similar bill in the Senate. The Democrat is not opposed to a regional system but he says it’s moving too fast and not thought out. He says, for example, it does nothing to prohibit the utility from being privatized.

“We could put citizens at risk and potentially lose a lot of the investment the taxpayers have made over the last really hundred years,” Sen. McCoy says.

McCoy even questions the legislative committees the bills were filed in. He says this is a local government or commerce issue not to be handled in an agriculture committee.

“I think if we were doing this to rural Iowa they would be raising hell,” McCoy says.

Critics, like McCoy, say the bill has corporate agriculture written all over it.  Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau says they have had nothing to do with the bill.  The legislation could be eligible for debate in both Republican-led chambers this week.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.