Water fight intensifies in Iowa


Gina Jochimsen |
Molly Hunter |

A bill was recently introduced in the Iowa Legislature that could affect water-quality regulation in major cities across Iowa.

The bill, House File 484, would transfer power from water utilities’ boards of trustees to city councils across the state. One of the water utilities affected would be the Des Moines Water Works, which has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming that agricultural businesses are responsible for runoff that endanger water quality in the area. In January, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the Water Works may not collect damages in the case.

“Converting any board-governing utility to a city department would disrupt and dilute the focus of the board …” said Dennison Clark, the general manager of Waterloo Water Works and president of Iowa Association of Water Agencies. “I have been very impressed with the technological competence, information sharing, and assistance that is common throughout the industry and particularly in board-governed utilities.”

The bill was introduced on March 1 and comes on the heels of President Trump’s recent executive order dismantling WOTUS, which he described as an abuse of power by the federal government. WOTUS, an Obama-era clean-water regulation appended to the Clean
Water Act of 1972, was implemented in 2015. Like the Clean Water Act, it exempts agriculture from regulation.

“The administration has already announced they [sic] are working toward a replacement,” said a prepared statement provided by the office of Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.

The Iowa Farm Bureau celebrated the move to cut WOTUS, which, it argued, is a federal overreach that overly complicates water-quality regulation. The bureau also argued that the regulation was unconstitutional because it was not authorized by Congress.

“This ill-conceived rule gives the … [EPA] extensive power to regulate water on 97 percent of the land in the state of Iowa, breeding uncertainty and confusion for many in Iowa and across the country,” Ernst said.

Sen. Joni Ernst

Sen. Joni Ernst

The Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit embodies the fear many have expressed that water quality may be negatively affected by agricultural runoff. Agricultural runoff is described by the EPA as fertilizer or animal manure that affects water quality when it rains.

“As somebody who works in the scientific community, when we make decisions this quickly without having an open discussion or the organizations that are going to be involved and without having an idea of what the potential outcomes could be, history has shown us that this doesn’t work, and that this will fail,” said Darren Fife, the owner of EcoSource LLC of Des Moines during the bill’s public hearing held March 6 at the State Capitol.

Concerns were also raised during the public hearing about the ability of city governments to manage water utilities. However, Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders, of the city of Des Moines, said cities are fully capable of running water facilities.

“Let me assure you that, as a regional water utility consisting of local elected officials, they will absolutely remain committed to safe drinking water,” he said. “Local elected officials have been very successful in creating regional utilities and other agreements.”

Sanders thanked the Legislature for being willing to make changes to the bill in order to improve the law.