Urbandale poised to vote on water regionalization

By: - January 10, 2022 2:08 pm

Three Des Moines metro water utilities are considering the regional governance of water supplies for the area. (Photo by Peter Cade Stone/Getty Images)

The three-member board that oversees the Urbandale Water Utility is set to vote Wednesday on whether to explore its membership of a regional water utility for the Des Moines metro area.

The proposal to jointly govern water production has brewed for years but has renewed urgency as the utilities in Des Moines and West Des Moines contemplate expensive projects to meet future water needs. Both have considered expansions that would cost in excess of $100 million.

Urbandale’s perspective is different because it produces none of its own drinking water. For nearly 90 years, it has purchased water from Des Moines Water Works, which supplies most of the water for the metro.

“There’s pros and cons on both sides of the issue,” said Dale Acheson, general manager of Urbandale Water Utility. He declined to say whether he supports the regional concept. “I’m going to leave that up to my board.”

Acheson said there is ample water available to Urbandale residents. On days the city has its highest demand for water, it uses about two-thirds of its current quota allotted by Des Moines. But it lacks control over water prices and in recent years has seen annual increases of between 7% and 15%.

Urbandale bought four quarries about a decade ago from which it could draw water. Over the long term, it would be substantially cheaper for Urbandale customers if the city produced its own water, but the estimated $80 million up-front costs to build a treatment plant would significantly increase water bills until the debt incurred to build it is repaid, Acheson said.

Urbandale Water Utility trustees are set to meet Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

Des Moines Water Works trustees voted unanimously last month to develop a plan for the proposed Central Iowa Water Works. West Des Moines trustees will consider it at their Jan. 26 meeting.

The regional utility would include shared ownership of water production and would spread the costs of infrastructure projects — and the financial risks associated with water production — among members. Cities would remain in control of their distribution systems and billing.

“The lowest cost for everyone is if we work together and build regionally,” said Ted Corrigan, chief executive of Des Moines Water Works.

About 40% of the water produced by the utility serves Des Moines. The rest goes to other metro cities. The utility draws water from the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers and from wells.

“As the metro continues to grow, we carry a lot of the risk for that,” Corrigan said.

There are dramatic, year-to-year fluctuations in water usage that are driven by droughts and other factors, he said. And there’s uncertainty about cities like Urbandale that could opt to produce their own water, or like West Des Moines that could expand its own water production. Des Moines supplies about 30% of West Des Moines’ water now.

West Des Moines Water Works draws its water from wells and has mostly relied on Des Moines water to supply its Microsoft data centers. Such facilities are thirsty customers that use water for cooling and electricity production with steam.

Some opponents in West Des Moines of a regional water utility are wary of ceding the city’s production authority for fear that it might affect the ability to accommodate future data centers or other high-demand facilities, but Corrigan and Christina Murphy, general manager of West Des Moines Water Works, said it won’t.

“All but one of the data centers are supplied by water we purchase from Des Moines Water Works,” Murphy said. “No matter what, if we build a west regional (water production) plant, we’re still going to be buying water from Des Moines. We can’t really sever ourselves.”

There is no imminent need to expand West Des Moines’ water capacity, but Murphy said regional governance will ensure supply stability and might save her customers 30% on their bills in the coming decades. It’s anticipated to take six months to finalize a framework for Central Iowa Water Works, which could launch in 2023.

“The worst thing we can do is sit around and wait and kick the can down the road and not have the water when we need it,” Murphy said.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.