Advancing the Work of Des Moines Water Works and Bill Stowe

posted by Jennifer Terry on Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Several weeks ago, our community learned of the terminal diagnosis of Bill Stowe, the CEO of Des Moines Water Works and a fearless champion of water quality issues. I had the privilege of working alongside Bill at Des Moines Water Works for a couple of years, as the lawsuit against northern Iowa drainage districts rolled through the legal system. I learned that the water quality policy space in Iowa is no place for the faint of heart.

Drawing attention to the well-documented financial burdens and health risks of industrial agricultural pollution challenged the very core of Iowa’s identity, releasing a deeply personal and emotional response from people across the state. Bill became the lightning rod for mean-spirited personal attacks, threats to dismantle the Water Works, million-dollar smear campaigns, and bullying by corporate ag.

All because Bill and the DMWW board of trustees used the last resort they had—litigation—

to protect the health and pocketbooks of their 500,000 customers. The litigation was costly, not only in dollars, but in personal and professional angst. Was there an upside? Absolutely. 

The Water Works lawsuit opened the door to candid talk about the inequity of forcing 500,000 mid-Iowans to foot the bill for unfettered nitrate pollution. The suit brought legitimate scientific research into the spotlight, spoke truth to the rhetoric, and spurred some (albeit inadequate) action by policymakers and legislators. Iowans are now keenly aware that while it was a start, the funding allocated last year by SF 512 will not come close to covering the multi-billion dollar price tag that comes with unchecked nutrient pollution in public waterways.

Is there more work to do?  Yes. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has tried this legislative session to ram anti-conservation legislation through the Statehouse that would negatively impact conservation and clean water initiatives. The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission refuses to appropriately enforce the Clean Water Act.  There is much work to do.

The Iowa Environmental Council will seek to honor Bill’s legacy by helping to carry the work forward, fighting to protect the health and safety of Iowans—by collaborating when possible, by pushing agencies to appropriately enforce the Clean Water Act, and by litigation when necessary to hold polluters accountable.

With the passing of Bill Stowe, his detractors got what they fought for—his silence – but the many individuals and organizations motivated and supported by Bill’s passion and determination will not be silenced. His courage to say hard things in the face of unbelievable pressure will serve as a resource for us all in this long and challenging work.

As for me, I refuse to be bullied in this space. We will continue to speak the truth about water pollution and vigorously pursue solutions that protect our fellow Iowans. I invite you to join us and make Bill’s vision – our vision – a reality for Iowa.

About The Author

Jennifer joined the Council in 2017. She returned to the Iowa Environmental Council, having previously led the Council’s agricultural water policy efforts. While previously at the Council, she pushed for strengthening Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, advocated for increased transpa ... read more