News Feature | March 14, 2017

Iowa Water Utility Takes On Big Ag

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

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In Iowa, utilities and farmers are perennial opponents on water-quality issues. Cleaning up fertilizer pollution in drinking water is a costly burden — and who should bear that burden is hotly debated.

The conflict is reaching a boiling point this year as the state considers legislation to disassemble the largest water utility in the state. Water utility officials see the bill as retribution, since the utility pursued litigation against agriculture drainage districts, hoping for financial relief for the cost of nutrient pollution.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe is not mincing words about the bill to unmake his utility.

“It’s clear to me the bill is intended to get at us because of our lawsuit,” Stowe told The Huffington Post. “It sends its own message: Don’t step in the way of Big Ag, or you’ll suffer the consequences. That has a huge, chilling impact on civil discourse.”

“You can kill the messenger, but not the message,” Stowe said. “The waters of our state are getting worse instead of better, and we are articulating that message. And that doesn’t go away until the facts disprove it.”

The legislation in question would “dismantle Des Moines Water Works,” The Des Moines Register reported. “House File 316, introduced by state Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, would halt all planning, design or construction of new water utilities until July 1, 2018.”

State Rep. Chris Hall, a Democrat, opposes the legislation.

“When you look at the bill itself, the clear takeaway is that it’s politically motivated,” Hall told HuffPost. “There is not rationale in public policy that is sound that will be created by this legislation.”

The Huffington Post points out that Klein, who introduced the bill, has ties to the agricultural sector:

Klein, a farmer whose district is 100 miles east of Des Moines, is a member of the Iowa Farm Bureau, according to his state legislature biography. The Farm Bureau has opposed the Des Moines utility’s lawsuit and donated nearly $10,000 to Klein’s 2010 campaign. Klein also belongs to groups representing pork producers and corn growers, which have opposed the utility’s litigation.

Klein defended his support for the bill, denying that his legislation was a reaction to the utility’s lawsuit, according to The Huffington Post. Proponents say the bill will help Des Moines water customers outside the city get a fairer say on utility issues.

"Having more voices, more opinions, backgrounds, diversity at the table helps us produce a better result," Klein said, per WHO TV.

Image credit: "Agricultural runoff," eutrophication&hypoxia © 1999, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: