Ag Policy Blog

Des Moines Water Works to Consider Upgrade to Treatment Facilities

By Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter

Though the scheduled start of a trial in Des Moines Water Works' nutrients pollution lawsuit against several counties and water drainage districts is just six months away, a five-year, $241 million capital improvement project presented to the utility's board of trustees last week includes plans to upgrade DMWW's system to keep up with regulatory compliance on water quality.

The DMWW board was presented a five-year capital improvement plan by staff to include what could be an increase in water rates for some 500,000 ratepayers.

Once the trial does start in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa in Sioux City -- slated to begin Aug. 8 -- at stake will be whether agriculture sources of nutrients runoff should be considered as point sources and whether drainage districts can be held legally liable for that runoff into drinking water sources.

Part of the court action filed by DMWW seeks compensation from the drainage districts for millions of dollars spent in filtering nutrients from source waters that DMWW then sends back into rivers.

Before the case proceeds the court is waiting on the answers to a number of legal questions posed to the Iowa Supreme Court about the role of drainage districts and other information.

The five-year capital-improvement plan presented to the DMWW board last week in a sense broke the mold of the typical one-year plans historically proposed by DMWW staff.

"A five-year capital improvement plan allows the utility to anticipate critical infrastructure needs and demonstrates commitment to regulatory compliance with attention to longer, multi-year capital construction projects," DMWW said in a news release.

Of the $241 million proposed in the plan, some $57 million will be funded by other entities through joint projects. This means about $184 million would be funded by DMWW. Staff is expected to present recommendations in the fall on how the five-year plan could be funded through ratepayer increases and revenue bonds.

In a news release statement DMWW's Chief Executive Officer and General Manager Bill Stowe said the plan would help the utility better manage water quality with continued nutrients pollution into surface waters.

"While the proposed costs are extraordinary, the majority of the infrastructure items are not discretionary," he said in a statement. "Source water-quality projections for the Des Moines and Raccoon River predicting continuing surface water pollution show that investment in more treatment will be required to meet drinking water standards and to avoid risk to public safety."

DMWW is prepared to invest in upgrades to a treatment plant, implement several nitrate removal measures including expansion of a current ion exchange denitrification facility, as well as build a wetland in Water Works Park.

The funds needed for nitrate mitigation in the five-year capital improvement plan total $70 million. An additional $10 million will be needed beyond the five-year outlook, for a total of $80 million in infrastructure investments in order to meet the safe drinking water standard for nitrate.

"Des Moines Water Works is seeking relief against upstream polluters and accountability for endangering drinking water sources and for passing agricultural production costs downstream," Stowe said in news release. "When the public health of our customers and continuing economic growth in central Iowa are at stake we cannot wait for the unspecific gains promised by Iowa's all-voluntary agricultural nutrient reduction strategy."

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Curt Zingula 3/1/2016 | 7:24 AM CST
Bill Stowe gets paid $330,000 a year to be the DMWW's Director. The DMWW also employs a PR hit person to go around and tell people how badly farmers are spoiled by a lack of regulations. Last summer I told a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette that Stowe's plan of using the lawsuit to initiate NPDES permits and subsequent water quality plans on tile outlets was physically impossible. When that reporter cornered Stowe, he replied that he has no intention of regulating farmers, just the water districts. Stowe just said on tv last night that he wants to create regulations on farmers. Perhaps that's because the water districts don't have the $ resources for settling a lawsuit, nor do they have the ability to regulate what farmers do. No matter, polling shows Iowans favor the lawsuit by 60%.