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Q&A: Bill Stowe - CEO, General Manager of Des Moines Water Works

Bill Stowe, Des Moines Water Works CEO and general manager, isn’t the most well-received person in a roomful of farmers. It doesn’t come as a shock to him. The Des Moines Water Works is suing three Iowa County Boards of Supervisors that manage drainage districts with high concentration of nitrates. Those drainage districts feed into the Raccoon River, the primary water source for Des Moines, Iowa’s capital city.

“Our theory is that the drainage districts are point-source polluters under the Federal Clean Water Act and a nuisance under Iowa law,” says Stowe.

The lawsuit is a necessity until, as he says, the agricultural community steps up conservation efforts and delivers more than platitudes. He says any efforts made in the ag community up until now have been too little, too late.

In 2012, Iowa released its voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which calls for science-based practices to be installed across the state. Stowe says it hasn’t made a difference. “We operated for 148 days this year,” says Stowe. “The previous high was 108 days.”

SF: Not many cities have taken the litigation approach. What do you see for the future of water utilities in the Corn Belt?
BS: Hopefully, no more lawsuits. We would hope that we are a catalyst in a more constructive discussion. We’re hoping that the discussion opens up to more recognition of what our objective is and what the objective of industrial ag should be so there aren’t more lawsuits. To date, that appears to be our only constructive alternative other than to force more costs on our consumers.

SF: How is the lawsuit being funded?
BS: Ratepayers are paying for litigation. We have $1,000 in private donors. We’ve not sought out large environmental or other benefactors, unlike industrial ag who has a number of large benefactors supporting them. The board has appropriated up to $700,000 for litigation.

SF: What’s your biggest challenge?
The Clean Water Act requires point-source polluters be permitted. We believe the federal courts and the EPA are increasingly recognizing that industrial agriculture, like other businesses, should be accountable for what comes off its lands and into the waters of the U.S.

SF: Do you disagree with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy?
The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is great science. The science says 90% of the nutrient problem in the Gulf of Mexico is from industrial ag, and 10% is from regulated point-source polluters.

The policy is horrible. Saying 45% reduction in nutrient loading will come from voluntary practices flies in the face of public policy, science, and our experience since it was announced 2½ years ago.

We’ve seen the worst spikes of nitrate concentrations, and we’ve run our denitrification units for a record number of days in a calendar year this year. When we get into public policy, environmental protection, and public health protection that talks about voluntarism, we’re flying in the face of human behavior, and certainly of environmental protection in the U.S. Ratepayers use water on a daily basis. We’re not going to stop using it for 50 years while the voluntary program may or may not help.

SF: The removed nitrates are dumped back into the river. How is this justified?
We are very appreciative of the idea that we are returning not just nitrogen (N) but salt back into the river. Here’s the dilemma. This utility did not introduce water-soluble N into the water cycle – producers upstream did.

We are ill-equipped to take N and release it into the environment atmospherically. We have constructed our facilities to deal with other water-quality issues such as microbes, viruses, and bacteria. This industrial ag issue is a latecomer that we aren’t constructed to deal with. The real issue is who is introducing it upstream.

SF Bio for Bill Stowe
Position: CEO and General manager
Stowe is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Grinnell College. He received a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, a master’s degree in industrial relations from the University of Illinois, and a Juris Doctor degree from Loyola University Law School. Stowe sits on the board of directors of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which comprises the largest drinking water utilities in North America. He is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a member of the Iowa State Bar Association.
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