Des Moines Water Works votes to further discuss collectively governing water in the metro

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Eleanor Hildebrandt | December 22, 2021

The Des Moines Water Works board of trustees voted to further negotiate collectively governing drinking water production within the metro on Tuesday.

In a unanimous vote, the board plans to negotiate an agreement with other water utilities surrounding Des Moines, establishing a Central Iowa Water Works. While the vote doesn’t officially confirm Des Moines’s participation in the potential new, joint utility, but it does push the discussion forward according to Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Des Moines isn’t the only utility to contemplating further discussing a joint utility. West Des Moines Water Works and the Urbandale Water Utility are both set to vote on the topic in January. Regardless of how the two vote, the water utilities are not likely to decide on an agreement quickly. It’s likely the soonest Iowan’s could see a signed agreement and a Central Iowa Water Works is 2023. The idea of a regional utility for water has been in the works for four years.

The Des Moines board told residents there will be more public meetings for them to voice their concerns before any final decisions are made regarding the agreement.

Des Moines sees rain, lifts voluntary water cutbacks

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Eleanor Hildebrandt | July 16, 2021

After several days of rain, Des Moines Water Works suspended its ask for voluntary cutbacks on water usage in central Iowa on Thursday.

Des Moines Water Works began asking people to cut their water usage on June 14. The voluntary cutbacks asked Iowans to limit lawn-watering by 25 percent. The ask came after high temperatures and a lack of rain across the state. With removal of these voluntary cutbacks, the utility continues to encourage customers to water on specific days of the week based on their address. It also asks residents to not water their lawn between 10 am and 5 pm.

As of July 1, 85 percent of Iowa was in a drought at multiple levels. Recent rains have lessened drought conditions, but the U.S. Drought Monitor showed the drought had only dropped by 12 percent. 32 percent of the state is still experiencing a severe drought, specifically in the northern counties of Iowa.

Alongside water conservation efforts, Des Moines Water Works is still concerned about water quality in central Iowa. Algae blooms from runoff in the area has led to unclean water around Saylorville Lake, which runs into the Des Moines River.

With Iowa seeing more wet weather, the Western United States could see its severe drought lasting until October. The heat on the coast could lead to an extended wildfire season as well.

Des Moines Water Works plans to drill wells in search for clean water

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Elizabeth Miglin | July 7, 2021

The Des Moines Water Works is now considering drilling wells to find clean water. After years of lawsuits and legislative lobbying, the utility has been unable to keep farmers upstream in order to reduce runoff. These efforts have cost Water Works $18 million to treat the polluted river water over the last two decades. Resulting in the utility now planning to spend $30 million in order to drill wells which will mix in pure water when the nitrate levels rise seasonally. 

Major cities are often discouraged from taking such a dramatic measure, as reliance on wells for large populations would quickly deplete the groundwater. Comparatively, small communities may often use wells but surface sources such as rivers and lakes, supply 70% of the freshwater used in the U.S. 

Nitrate levels in central Iowa have become so bad that Des Moines Water Works’ CEO Ted Corrigan said to Iowa Public Radio “for 110 days last year [Water Works] could not use the Des Moines River as a water source…That is shocking.” 

Since many Iowa farmers are unable to privately invest in ways to filter out chemicals and public funding through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is limited, the utility has few alternative options. 

Water Works has paid the U.S. Geological Service $770,000 to analyze drilling sites north of the city, according to The Gazette. Thereafter, the utility will have to work with state and federal agencies to get the permits to build the wells. 

Des Moines Water Works Urges Customers to Conserve Amid Drought

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Elizabeth Miglin | June 15, 2021

Des Moines Water Works has asked customers to voluntarily conserve water as drought and near-record water demand strains supply. 

On Monday, the utility asked metro residents to reduce their lawn watering by 25%. The utility has a capacity of 110 million gallons a day however, when demand reaches past 90 million the system risks water pressure problems. On June 9, Water Works pumped 88.6 million gallons, now the second highest peak since 2012 when 96 million gallons were pumped. 

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, CEO Ted Corrigan noted if it doesn’t rain soon, the utility may need to ask for a 50% lawn watering reduction. This is only the second time during Corrigan’s 31 years at Water Works that the utility has asked customers to voluntarily reduce water usage. The last time a cutback was encouraged was in 2012. 

Water Works has had to lower its usage of the Des Moines River due to toxic algae issues which re-emerged a month early this year; making the river unusable. The current main source of tap water, the Raccoon River is running at 7.5% of its median flow.

Over the past decade, Iowa has spent over $40.6 million at six locations to treat and prevent algae toxin outbreaks. Nationwide, this issue has become a $1.1 billion issue according to a study by the Environmental Working Group

The request impacts Des Moines, West Des Moines, Johnston, Urbandale, Clive, Norwalk, Pleasant Hill and Ankeny city residents. 

Des Moines Water Works Detects Toxic PFAS in Drinking Water

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Nicole Welle | March 29, 2021

Des Moines Water Works recently detected low levels of PFOS, a toxic chemical found in multiple human-made products, in finished drinking water in Des Moines.

PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) is part of a large list of compounds called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), which are commonly found in products like popcorn bags, pizza boxes and clothing. These chemicals repel water and oil, and they are commonly called “forever chemicals” since they do not break down and stay in the environment for a long time. PFAS levels detected in Des Moines drinking water were at 6.5 parts per trillion, which is well below the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt. However, even low levels are a concern and have triggered further investigation, according to a Des Moines Water Works announcement.

PFAS chemicals are known to pose threats to human health and the environment. The EPA has connected them to cancer, low birth weight, immune system problems and thyroid issues. While the levels detected in Des Moines’ drinking water are low, a lot more testing is required before specialists can fully understand how PFAS are affecting Iowa’s water supply.

Des Moines Water Works has reached out to the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Attorney General and Iowa’s Congressional delegation to ask for help in resolving the issue. The Iowa DNR plans to test 50 locations they consider highly vulnerable to pollution for PFAS contamination. The federal Department of Defense is also conducting tests to follow up on high PFAS contamination previously detected in groundwater near the Des Moines and Sioux City airports.

On The Radio- Water quality takes center stage at Farm Progress Show

Des Moines Water Works
Water quality improvement strategies were discussed at this year’s farm show following the Des Moines’ Waterworks lawsuit against three Iowa counties due to high levels of nitrates that were drained into drinking water. (Tony Webster/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | September 19, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the emphasis on water quality at this year’s Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa.

Transcript:  Water quality was on the main stage at this year’s Farm Progress Show.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Held in Boone, Iowa every summer, the Farm Progress Show aims to educate farmers about new technology for their fields, covering everything from tractor equipment to new seed strains. This year’s show emphasized the importance of water quality.

In twenty-fifteen Des Moines Water Works sued three north western Iowa counties for polluting the drinking water of over five-hundred thousand Des Moines residents. Water Works claims that Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties’ ag drainage systems transported high levels of nitrates from farms into the Raccoon River.

The Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance released a statement at the show, saying that creating and implementing effective solutions to water quality challenges would create economic development in rural Iowa. The alliance aims to identify gaps in building a “conservation infrastructure” that would result in less nitrate and phosphorus runoff from Iowa farms.

The Des Moines Water Works trial was set to begin in August of this year but has been delayed and is now rescheduled to begin in late June of twenty-seventeen.

For more information on the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance and the Farm Progress Show, visit Iowa environmental focus dot com.

From the UI Center for Regional and Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Experts say improving Iowa’s water quality could take decades

A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)

Nick Fetty | March 16, 2016

Water quality researchers across the state say that it will take decades to reduce nutrient concentration in Iowa waterways and that much of the problem can be attributed to the current voluntary approach to nutrient reduction as well as the unpredictability of the weather.

University of Iowa hydrologist Keith Schilling said he expects the cleanup of Iowa’s waterways to take several years.

“This is a long-term process to measure (nutrient reduction) progress at the large watershed scale. It will take many years, if not decades, to see changes,” Schilling said in an interview with the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

The ability to improve water quality in Iowa is further complicated by two other issues: the voluntary approach of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) and unpredictable weather patterns.

Iowa’s NRS was developed by scientists and researchers at Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2013. The strategy outlines voluntary ways farmers, watershed managers, and other landowners can improve water quality through agricultural practices (buffer strips, cover crops, etc.) and other conservation measures. Critics of the NRS – such as Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe – say that the voluntary approach is ineffective and does little to improve water quality.

Stowe has been behind a lawsuit between Des Moines Water Works and three northern Iowa counties. The water utility alleges that the counties are not doing enough to reduce nutrient pollution and that the water utility is then burdened with additional treatment processes. A recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed support Des Moines Water Works in the lawsuit.

Unpredictable weather patterns have also contributed to the difficulty of improving Iowa’s water quality. University of Iowa hydrologist Keith Schilling said one example of this is drought experienced in 2012 followed by an unusually wet 2013 which led to an increase in nutrients in Iowa waterways. Shilling said that nutrient loads have seen little change statewide since 1998 but changes were easier to indentify in subwatersheds where conservation measures have been installed.

On The Radio – Proposal would use school funding to improve water quality

Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)
Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 25, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at a recent proposal by Iowa governor Terry Branstad that would use funding dedicated for schools to improve water quality across the state.

Transcript: Proposal would use school funding to improve water quality

A proposal by Iowa governor Terry Branstad would use funding dedicated for school building and technology projects to improve water quality in the state.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus

Earlier this month, Governor Branstad announced a proposal that would extend Iowa’s 1-percent sales tax 20 years – to 2049 – while diverting a portion of future sales tax growth for water quality improvement projects. The extension is expected to generate an additional 20-point-7 billion dollars for schools and 4-point-6 billion dollars to improve water quality.

This announcement comes on the heels of a lawsuit between the Des Moines Water Works and three northern Iowa counties. The water utility claims that the counties are not doing enough to prevent nitrate runoff from their fields which eventually enter the Raccoon River, which has forced the Des Moines Water Works to operate additional machinery to remove nitrates from drinking water.

The legislature will likely be looking at this proposal as well as others to address the need for future water quality funding.

For more information about the governor’s proposal visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus-dot-org

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Proposal would use school funding to improve water quality

Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)
Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 6, 2016

A recent proposal by Iowa governor Terry Branstad would use funding from Iowa’s 1-percent school building sales tax to improve water quality in the state.

The proposal would extend the sales tax – set to expire in 2029 – to 2049. The extension is expected to provide $20.7 billion for schools and $4.6 billion to improve water quality. The proposal by the Republican governor has been backed by former Iowa governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.

“It’s so important to every, single Iowan,” Vilsack said during a press conference. “If this doesn’t get resolved, these farmers wont know what to do, they’re bankers wont know what to lend, they wont be interested in buying equipment…the local schools obviously wont benefit. I mean, there’s a tremendous need for immediate action here.”

The 1-percent sales tax – which was approved in 2008 – brings in about $400 million each year to be used for school infrastructure projects. The governor’s proposal comes by on the heels of a lawsuit between Iowa’s largest water utility and three counties north of Des Moines. Representatives with the Des Moines Water Works claim that authorities in the northern Iowa counties of Buena Vista, Calhoun, and Sac are not doing enough to prevent nitrate runoff from farm fields which is forcing the water utility to operate costly equipment to remove additional nitrates from drinking water.

Opponents of the governor’s proposal feel that it will not do enough to reduce farm chemical runoff. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs has also expressed concerns about the measure.

The funding proposal must be approved by the Iowa legislative before going into effect. Iowa’s 2016 legislate session begins January 11.

Des Moines water bills expected to increase 10 percent in 2016

The Des Moines River near downtown Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
The Des Moines River near downtown Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | December 30, 2015

As 2015 wraps up, Des Moines residents can prepare for a 10 percent increase on their water bills in 2016.

The rate increase comes in the midst of a lawsuit between the Des Moines Water Works and three northern Iowa drainage districts. The water utility claims the drainage districts are not doing enough to prevent nitrate pollution in public waterways which has forced the utility to operate its Nitrate Removal Facility. The additional equipment costs up to $7,000 per day to operate which is eventually passed on to the more than a quarter of a million customers in the Des Moines area.

Rates are expected to go up in April of 2016. Bill Stowe – CEO of the Des Moines Water Works – recently told Iowa Public Radio that it will cost $80 million to update its nitrate removal system and that he’s been disappointed by the state’s political leadership regarding the situation.

“I’m particularly disappointed in the last year that we haven’t had political leadership from either party in Iowa to step forward and move this towards some kind of negotiated settlement…We believe we’re going to prevail in a court of law.”

Stowe added, “If we don’t [previal] we believe there will be big public policy consequences from that.”

A lawyer representing the water districts is arguing that the districts little authority outside of draining land and therefore cannot be held accountable “for damages that result from actions over which the districts have no control,” as reported by the Sioux City Journal. Earlier this year a motion was filed asking U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett to drop eight of the 10 charges against the drainage districts.

Bennett expects to have a ruling on the issue by mid-January.