Here’s a prediction — and I hope I’m wrong.
The Iowa Legislature will deal with the state’s lousy water quality in lakes, rivers and streams about the same time that Congress decides to deal with climate change.
Which is to say, neither the Legislature nor Congress show any inclination to confront the two problems.
And as further evidence of this head-in-the-sand attitude toward water quality, the Legislature is spending time this session trying, instead, to exact revenge against the Des Moines Water Works rather than taking meaningful action against water pollution.
The Des Moines utility has been hot water with some in the Legislature since 2015. That’s when the independent public utility focused national attention on Iowa’s water quality problems. The waterworks sued three northwest counties for the polluted water their rural drainage districts funnel into the Raccoon River, Des Moines’ principal water supply.
For the past couple of years, lawmakers considered various ways of providing more financial assistance to help slow the runoff of agricultural chemicals from farm fields into streams feeding into the Raccoon River.
Those proposals went nowhere. But some lawmakers were hoping this would be the year when the Legislature finally settled upon a plan to improve the state’s water and pay for the cleanup.
Instead, emboldened by their new majority in the Iowa Senate, along with already having a majority in the Iowa House and a Republican in the governor’s office, the Legislature now is trying to break apart the Des Moines Water Works.
The waterworks serves about 500,000 customers who live in Des Moines, in the surrounding suburbs and in rural areas of central Iowa.
If you don’t get drinking water from the Des Moines utility, you might decide you don’t have a dog in this fight and are not concerned about the latest legislative tactic. But that’s the wrong view.
The Des Moines Water Works has been owned by the people of Des Moines since 1919, when a privately owned water company founded by pioneer businessman Frederick M. Hubbell was sold to the city. Hubbell’s family owned Terrace Hill until it was turned over to the state 40 years ago to become the residence of Iowa’s governors.
Through the years, the waterworks has grown in size, expanding from one treatment plant to three, to keep up with its growing customer base and the growing demand for water.
That brings us to this year’s session of the Legislature.
A bill introduced by Rep. Jarad Klein, a Republican from Keota, is now in front of the House Agriculture Committee. You read that correctly, the ag committee — not the House Local Government Committee, as you would logically expect.
Klein’s bill would divide ownership of the utility among Des Moines and its suburbs. And how much would the suburbs have to pay for their ownership shares in the waterworks? Zero.
All five members of the Des Moines Water Works’ board of trustees are now appointed by Des Moines’ mayor. But the utility is owned by the people of Des Moines, not by people living in Des Moines’ suburbs. They are customers, not owners.
No one pushing for this legislation will say there is any motivation other than to provide suburban residents with a voice in the waterworks’ operations. But it’s no coincidence that approval of the legislation, and Gov. Terry Branstad’s signature, would likely spell an end to the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit.
So why worry about finding ways to improve water quality if you can jam through a proposal to yank a big chunk of the ownership of the utility away from Des Moines without payment of even one thin dime?
Klein’s bill is a poor example of how to solve disputes.
MidAmerican Energy Co. now provides electricity and natural gas to Des Moines and its suburbs and to thousands of other Iowans. And there are thousands of so-called CAFOs around the state, which feed huge numbers of hogs, chickens and turkeys.
Would the Republican majority in the Legislature think it is wise — and fair — to snatch MidAmerican Energy away from its owners without any compensation, simply because some customers want to have a say in the operation of the company?
Would the Republican majority in the Legislature think it is fair to take various CAFOs away from their owners, simply because neighbors of these large animal feeding operations want to have a say in how the CAFOs operate?
You know the answer, as well as I do. It’s “no.”
But that’s what the Republicans who hold majorities in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate seem ready to do with the Des Moines Water Works.
In a state like Iowa, where the rural population is dwindling, regional solutions are the smart way to go whenever possible. Good governance would say the Des Moines Water Works should be managed by a regional board of trustees, rather than by trustees only from Des Moines.
But you don’t accomplish that through heavy-handed lawmaking — especially when an unspoken motive is to end a lawsuit that state officials and ag interests find embarrassing.
The way you arrive at a solution is for the utility and its suburban customers to sit down and negotiate. That’s what compromise is all about.
Of course, that’s not the way the Legislature seems to be “solving” problems this year.
by Randy Evans
Reprinted from the Bloomfield Democrat