Water utility officials from Waterloo, Keokuk and Urbandale were at the state capitol today, speaking out against a bill that would dismantle the Des Moines Water Works and replace it with a regional water utility. Andrea Rogers, general manager of the Keokuk Municipal Waterworks, said the fear is the bill could be easily altered to include communities like hers.
“It is important to not disrupt the balance of our utilities with abrupt changes to our utility structure,” Rogers said. “Without the ability to manage the finances and capital budgets, the ability to serve our respective communities is constrained.”
The Des Moines Water Works last year sued three northwest Iowa counties, alleging mismanagement of ag chemical run-off there is polluting the drinking water supply in central Iowa. Dale Acheson, general manager of the water utility in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, said his organization’s unfairly targeted because of that Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.
“Out of that action created some response by a legislator that says: ‘You stepped in my backyard, I’m going to step in yours,’ and you certainly have,” Acheson said. “But I’m collateral damage to that. I have done none of that.”
Dennis Clark, the president of the Iowa Association of Water Agencies, also opposes the bill. He’s general manager of the Waterloo Water Works.
“Prior to the 1910 foundation of our Waterloo Water Works, the utility was run by a private organization which was reasonably disastrous and we suffered through a number of financial and water quality issues,” Clark said. “Since our utility was formed by that public vote, the model of management by a board of trustees has worked for over 100 years and should continue for the foreseeable future.”
Clark and the others made their comments late this morning, during a public hearing on the legislation. The majority of comments came from opponents of the bill, but there were a handful of supporters, some suggesting the governance change might lower water costs. Peter Sand lives in the suburb of Urbandale, but his law office is within the city limits of Des Moines.
“It empowers the local governments to craft the most efficient structure possible for delivering the necessary service of water for the residents in this area,” Sand said. “Once empowered, I think local cities will do just that, they will create an organization that is centered on irrigation and not litigation.”
Governor Branstad told reporters at this weekly news conference this morning that the Des Moines Water Works was created under a state law and legislators have every right to change the law.
“Obviously, the rural people that have been sued by the Des Moines Water Works feel it’s not fair and they’ve had an antagonist running it,” Branstad said, “and they’d like to see something different that’s more supportive and collaborative about protecting the waters of our state.”
Supporters of the manager of Des Moines Water Works general manager Bill Stowe wore t-shirts that read, “I’m with Stowe” at today’s public hearing. Jessica Mazour of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement — the final speaker of the hour-long event — is a Stowe backer.
“Instead of working to improve the quality of our water and holding corporate agriculture accountable, we have a Farm Bureau power grab to break up one of the water utilities that’s willing to stand up for the people and the planet over corporate ag and corporate greed,” Mazour said.
Matt Sinovic of Progress Iowa accused Republicans of pursuing a “revenge agenda.”
“Now make no mistake about it, the legislation you’re considering today — like so many that have been pushed this year — is not about public policy. It’s about political revenge,” Sinovic said. “Republicans don’t like that the Des Moines Water Works is in court, standing up for Iowa families who deserve clean drinking water.”
There are two more public hearings at the statehouse today. The one that starts 5 p.m. will address legislation to get rid of county-wide minimum wages that are higher than the national minimum wage. The second public hearing begins at 7 p.m. It’s about proposed election law changes.