Fight to protect Des Moines Water Works against proposed legislation continues

Bill would dismantle the public utility and give city councils control

DES MOINES - The fight to protect Des Moines Water Works continues, as a bill to tear it down moves through the Statehouse.

The proposed bill would no longer allow public water utilities in Des Moines, West Des Moines and Urbandale to be run independently. Those water utilities would instead be put under the control of local city councils. Then, those city councils would make decisions on spending and policy.

Hundreds of central Iowans who oppose the legislation voiced their concenrs at a public forum Sunday afternoon - their thunderous applause, signaling support for Des Moines Water Works. They say without it, their water quality will suffer.

"We all need water, it's not something that any of us can give up or do without," said Steve Gude of Des Moines. "So protecting it, having water works well-managed, it's a public health issue."

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat who represents Des Moines, hosted Sunday's meeting. He says the public utility knows what's best for the people.

"It's the central agency responsible for providing clean safe reliable drinking water to more than 500,000 Iowans,' Sen. McCoy said. "So it's essential that the organization has the autonomy to operate to do the things that it needs to do to make sure than it's protecting clean water for central Iowans."

Des Moines Water Works' CEO Bill Stow is also pushing back, saying the proposed legislation is an overreach of power.

"We can manage our own water utilities, have for a hundred years," Stowe said. "Water utilities in this state were set up to have distance from city governments with the thought that many of the issues that we deal with really should be insulated from politics."

Lawmakers who support the bill, a majority of whom are Republicans, say the changes would reduce costs and centralize the process. But some Des Moines residents disagree.

"It's also another good example of the Republican legislature talking a good game about local control, but over and over and over again, when it's local control that they don't like, the want to step in and have a power grab," Gude said.

But it is not just Des Moines residents who are concerned. People from outside the area say water quality is their top priority, even if the proposed legislation does not directly affect them.

"It does not affect Pella but it does affect the issue of the environment," said Linda Blatt of Pella, who came to Sunday's meeting to show her support. "We're concerned about it nationally and locally and we see that the environment is taking a second seat to other issues."

They fear if it passes here, their own utilities could be in jeopardy.

"I think that's what the move is indicating and so we hope that this bill fails," Blatt said.

Stowe says the bill is just political retaliation for the now-failed Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, that was filed against three Iowa counties for water pollution. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit this past Friday. Despite that, Stowe says all he wants to do is protect the people of Iowa.

"We want safe, affordable drinking water here in central Iowa, and are concerned about the city of Des Moines distracting us from that mission," Stowe said.

Right now, state law requires a public vote to dissolve a public utility, such as Des Moines Water Works. The proposed bill would give that power to the legislature. The Des Moines City Council will vote on whether or not to support the bill at their Monday meeting.

The bill itself is expected to be debated on the House floor soon.

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