Experts: Fixing Iowa waterways will take legislation, legal action and $5B

By: - June 18, 2021 4:52 pm

Union Grove State Park beach near Gladbrook has had issues with algae toxins and fecal bacteria. (File photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

Fixing Iowa’s significant water-quality problems will take a brew of legal action and legislation and $5 billion, two experts told Iowa PBS Friday.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan and Iowa Flood Center co-founder Larry Weber said on “Iowa Press” that Friday’s decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to dismiss environmental groups’ lawsuit seeking regulations to help clean up the Raccoon River just stresses the point. 

Ted Corrigan is CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

Corrigan was involved in Water Works’ own federal lawsuit trying to force water-quality action upstream, and a federal court tossed that 2015 lawsuit. A bitter debate over the state of Iowa’s waters continued, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Action sued state officials to push the issue.

The environmental groups wanted regulations instead of the state’s voluntary package of actions in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which they and other environmental groups have called a major failure. Justices ruled, 4-3, that the matter should be left to lawmakers.

“We’re disappointed that the suit won’t move forward,” Corrigan said. “We think that water quality in Iowa is important and it deserved discussion. But moving forward, we see a wide path between litigation and legislation, which we think it’s going to take, that gives us a lot of opportunity to move the question forward and to begin the implementation of practices that will really help at least springboard the water quality situation in Iowa and that is where we’re going to be,” he added. 

Larry Weber is co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center. (Screenshot via Iowa PBS)

Weber, a University of Iowa engineering professor who regularly studies Iowa’s flood risks and water quality, agreed. “I think the the biggest challenge in Iowa is that we’ve had a lot of talk and the talk has been going on now for a decade or more and we’re just simply not making the progress that Iowans should expect to receive,” Weber said.

Panelist Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio asked Corrigan if he is mending fences after an unsettling debate among agricultural and environmental interests, and city and rural dwellers, over Water Works’ previous lawsuit.

“Des Moines Water Works had tried for 30 years to elevate the discussion about water quality in this state and not very successfully, I might add,” said Corrigan, a three-decade veteran of the utility’s staff. “The lawsuit was the right thing at the right time. It was needed to kick-start that conversation and it did just that, even though it was eventually dismissed.

“Now, while I tend to believe that we won’t make the progress we need to make without public policy change and that may not happen without litigation, the time is now for following that other path, collaboration,” Corrigan added.

Iowa’s water quality issues include high bacterial levels at times, occasionally dangerous levels of cancer-causing nitrate, toxic algae blooms that Corrigan said have made the Des Moines River “essentially unusable” at times for drinking water, and cloudy water that many find unappealing.

Weber said cleaning up Iowa’s waterways would cost an estimated $5 billion, and fighting floods would be another $5 billion. But if the state had $200 million a year, about what current state funding plus proceeds from a proposed sales tax increase would bring, much of that work could be done in 50 years, Weber said.

“But we need the political will to do it,” he added. 

On another topic, Corrigan said Water Works’ appeal for residents to cut lawn-watering by 25% brought a reduction in demand of about 5 million gallons a day. That’s a drop of about 5.5% in peak overall demand of 90 million gallons a day. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.