An overflow crowd packed a meeting room and hallway Monday morning at the Iowa State Capitol Building for a public hearing on a contentious water utilities bill that would impact the Des Moines Water Works. Speakers at the hearing raised the specter of the Flint, Michigan water crisis and argued that the legislation was payback for the water works’ water quality lawsuit against three rural counties.
House File 484, introduced by Iowa Rep. Jarad Klein (R-Keota), would impact water utilities in Des Moines, West Des Moines and Urbandale — this includes the Des Moines Water Works, which has become embroiled in the statewide discussion over water quality and how to hold agriculture accountable. Whereas the utilities are currently independent, the bill would make them into city departments controlled by city councils, a move that many at the meeting criticized as politicizing the utilities. The bill technically applies to all Iowa metropolitan statistical areas with over 500,000 Iowa residents, but Des Moines-West Des Moines is the only one that fits that description. An identical bill is also moving through the Iowa Senate.
Leslie Gearhart, chair of the Des Moines Water Works board, said she believes the bill is retaliation for a lawsuit filed by the water works in 2015 against three northwest Iowa counties. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in January that the three counties’ 10 drainage districts couldn’t be held financially responsible for discharging nitrates into the water, which the water works must remove to comply with clean water standards. The lawsuit will still be heard in June, including a piece of the suit that calls for the drainage districts to apply for permits under the Clean Water Act. This bill could potentially end that lawsuit.
“Des Moines Water Works has had conversations for years about the deteriorating quality of our source waters and that has led us nowhere,” Gearhart said. “A year ago we spent $1.3 million removing nitrates from the waters for the 500,000 customers that we have. It’s a very important issue and it’s really not one that should be politicized. We’re talking public health here, for half a million people in our state.”
Rep. Chris Hall (D-Sioux City), a member of the House Agriculture Committee who has served on the subcommittee for this bill, called for the public hearing. He said the bill politicizes an independent utility, takes local control away and may result in an increase in water rates for consumers.
“The only thing the bill actually accomplishes is to disband a public utility,” Hall said.
Gearhart said she worries transferring the Des Moines Water Works’ assets to cities with budget shortfalls might result in the assets being allocated for other uses, rather than investing in necessary water infrastructure. Cherie Mortice with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement echoed this sentiment in her statement at the hearing, saying there’s no guarantee that funds would not be diverted into pet projects in the cities.
The original bill included language about creating regional water boards, and some at the hearing spoke in favor of the bill on these grounds. However, this language has been removed from the bill. Several speakers argued that additional legislation is unnecessary for regionalization anyway, and some areas are working toward it already.
“If city councils and municipalities in central Iowa want to pursue a regional system, they can do so under existing code and 2080 agreements,” Hall said.
Rep. Todd Prichard, the ranking Democrat on the committee, spoke in favor of an amendment proposed by Sen. Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford) that would create an interim study committee to study the regionalization of water utilities.
“We really want to know what changes we are making before we make them,” Prichard said, adding that the bill has been before the committee for about two weeks. “If we’re going to push something that has far-reaching major effects we better understand that, so maybe we need to slow down.”
In the hall before the hearing, Jess Mazour, an organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, handed out signs.
“The Des Moines Water Works is protecting our water. They’re saying that ag should be regulated like any other industry, and this is retaliation for doing so,” said Mazour, who was the final speaker at the hearing. “It’s a power grab by the Farm Bureau and it’s wrong. It does nothing to actually protect our water, it actually puts us in a situation where we could become the next Flint, Michigan.”
The Iowa Farm Bureau has denied involvement with the legislation.
Barbara Kalbach, a farmer from Dexter who attended the hearing, said she’d rather see legislation proposed that would mandate filter strips on either side of streams that run through farmland, and more accountability to make sure farmers are following their manure management plans.
“Right’s right and wrong’s wrong, and if 23 billion gallons of liquid manure going on our land every year is going to cause a water problem, then we need to address that; we don’t need to address the Des Moines Water Works,” she said.
“Any other industry that locates in your county has to be responsible for the water that comes onto the property and the water that is discharged off the property. If you want to be an industry, fine, step up to the plate and be an industry. But conduct yourself like any other industry,” Kalbach said.