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Water Utilities and Cities Clash Over Bill to Dismantle Des Moines Water Works Board

Clay Masters
IPR file
Raccoon River south of downtown Des Moines.

Water utilities clashed with their cities at a public hearing at the capitol Monday over a bill that would dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board and create a regional utility. Critics of the bill say it is about stopping a controversial lawsuit that targets large-scale agriculture.

Des Moines is the only metro utility whose board would be broken up if the bill gets approval.  Those who support the bill, like Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders, say it’s an opportunity to update an old system.

“Let me assure you that as a regional water utility consisting of local elected officials,” Sanders says, “they will absolutely remain committed to providing clean, safe drinking water for everyone.”

Critics say it’s about stopping a controversial lawsuit the utility filed against three upstream counties over water pollution which the current board, appointed by the Des Moines mayor, approved. Leslie Gearhart is chair of the Des Moines Water Works Board and opposes the bill.   

“Taking assets of a public water utility is the exact kind of state government meddling that created the public health water crisis in Flint, Michigan,” Gearhart says.

Governor Branstad says he’ll wait to see final legislation but suburbs don’t feel like they’re represented at the Des Moines Water Works. Zachary Bales-Henry, a Windsor Heights councilman, said at the hearing there are too many unanswered questions for him to support the measure.

West Des Moines water utility also opposes the bill while the city supports it. Water works in Urbandale, Waterloo and Keokuk also testified against the bill. 

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