Past water dispute shows opportunity to fix nitrate problem

By Dick Goodson – Des Moines Register Opinion
February 8, 2015

Over the past few weeks a number of articles and editorials have been written about the Des Moines Water Works suing three northern Iowa counties because of high levels of nitrates, creating a huge cost to the water plant to extract the pollutants. The Water Works board believed that the only solution was to sue on behalf of its Central Iowa users. Meanwhile, the governor and a few other elected leaders are expressing opposition to the lawsuit and still believe voluntary efforts by the agriculture community are the best course of action.

As I look at the dispute I can’t help but think back to the 1970s, when a very similar dispute arose between Des Moines and its suburban neighbors.

Here’s the history: In the 1970s, Congress passed legislation that required cities to clean up their act in terms of sewage treatment plants. In some areas, rivers were catching on fire because of the material communities and industry were dumping in them. Then our regional planning agency did a million dollar-plus study, which told local governments in the metro what they needed to do. Instead, Des Moines and its suburbs elected to sue one another over it. Luckily, we had four elected officials provide leadership and meet quietly for over a year to come up with an agreement to implement the study.

Those leaders were Archie Brooks and Tim Urban, at the time members of the Des Moines City Council, and E.J Giovannetti and Gene Maddox, then mayors of Urbandale and Clive, respectively. Subsequently, Congressman Neil Smith was able to get more than $200 million in federal funding, and one of the country’s most modern sewer plants was built on Vandalia Road. The new plant was opened in 1988.

The second important shoe to drop was in 2004, when Des Moines and its suburban neighbors came together and created an additional agreement to separate storm water from sewage. The reason for this was that many older homes connected their sewage and their stormwater pipes, and during major rains the plant could not handle all the water and much of it then bypassed the plant and went directly in the river — not good if you live downstream. We now have a metro area that has some of the cleanest water flowing from the plant into the Des Moines River — the envy of many, many other communities.

That means we can handle the rainwater and sewer requirements of new and existing industries.

So what does the 1970s example tell us? It says to me that things must get bad before they get better. It took a lawsuit then — and now —to get the ball rolling. That said, this could be a great opportunity. So far the issue has only been talked about in terms of the Des Moines metro area and its problems.

However, the issue is much larger then that; it stretches north from Des Moines and south all the way to the Mississippi and down to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. If leaders would step up and find a local solution it might be possible to expand the solutions throughout the Midwest and into the gulf.

This is a great opportunity to show real leadership to begin to fix a massive national problem. Throughout our history, Americans have on many occasions crossed philosophical and partisan divides and done extraordinary things. The resolution to this problem could be one of those things. I hope so.

DICK GOODSON of Des Moines is the retired owner and CEO of Diversified Management Services Inc. Contact: