Bill Stowe: Water quality hero

Bill Stowe’s courageous fight for clean water lives on.

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Bill Stowe speaks at IPP’s 15th anniversary event in September 2016. (Photo: Lance Coles)

Bill Stowe, dead at 60. The average American male born in 1959 should live about another 10 years. But there was nothing average about Bill Stowe.

The average male does not get three advanced degrees from three different institutions. The average American, male or female, does not take on the strongest and most powerful to change public debate, and force accountability where it was lacking.

Bill ran the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), the largest supplier of clean drinking water in Iowa. It was a surface water system. That means it had to deal with the serious pollution that unrestrained agricultural practices put into Iowa waters — a costly and unsustainable proposition.

Realizing he could not continue to pass on the costs of treating that water to his customers alone, he took action — courageous action in an agricultural state — to either get the polluters to stop, or at least to pay for the problems they are causing.

The case of the Des Moines Water Works vs. three Iowa counties with drainage districts that were some of the main polluters of the Raccoon River went to federal court. It scared agricultural organizations like the various state Farm Bureau federations.

As Stowe and DMWW fought “dark money”-funded interests in court, he gained both foes who favor the status quo and allies who shared either the lawsuit’s goals or the desire to help Iowans see what big industry was up to. Others joined the fight, including one small-town journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize, and activists who keep his fight alive today.

Bill lost his case in court, but pushed water quality more squarely into Iowa’s political and policy spotlight, forcing politicians including Terry Branstad to concede a need to do something — even though their actions have fallen short.

Bill Stowe was generous with his time and talked to groups about treating water to make it safe. He taught a class of mine.

160314-Stowe-DO classThe picture above was from three years ago when we visited the treatment works he served. He spoke often to groups about his passion for clean water all around the state — including as the featured speaker for the 15th anniversary of our organization in 2016.

When IPP considers what papers to investigate we often ask knowledgeable people around the state for thoughts on what would be helpful to better inform public debate. Bill had suggestions for our latest series of reports on water quality.

When IPP researcher Natalie Veldhouse and I met with him and his DMWW colleague Laura Sarcone in November, they had good suggestions that helped us in the development of our latest paper. When I sent a copy of that paper to Laura for her thoughts, I did not know that Bill was already in hospice.

Bill died too soon. His fight for clean water remains important for all Iowans.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is co-founder, former executive director and lead environment and energy researcher for the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

On big issues, Iowa leaders emerging locally

In the absence of state-level leadership, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that local officials will find a way to help their constituents.

If state leaders won’t lead, local leaders in Iowa are showing they will take up the job.

On three big issues in the last several months, we have seen this:

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to see a trend.

Public policy matters in Iowans’ lives, in critical ways. We elect people who can take care of it in a way that works for all Iowans, but not enough who will. In the absence of state-level leadership, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that local officials who also are hired to work for their constituents will find a way to help them.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

‘Choose 2’ to reduce water pollution

“Choose 2” is a simple but effective concept, but keeps a voluntary component to a solution to a difficult issue. Isn’t it worth a discussion?

Where Governor Branstad chooses to promote confrontation, Iowa legislators could be looking for an opportunity to stop chronic pollution of Iowa’s lakes, rivers and streams.

The Governor spoke of “war on rural Iowa” after the Des Moines Water Works announced its Board of Trustees voted to issue a notice of intent to sue the supervisors in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties “in their role as governing authority for 10 drainage districts that are discharging pollutants into the Raccoon River,” threatening Des Moines’ drinking water.

There doesn’t have to be “war.”

The answer is first an acknowledgment that the water problems are real and can be addressed without causing great pain — financially or in health — to anyone inside or outside city limits, upstream or downstream.

Supporters of the new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which was hailed as a promising effort to improve Iowa water quality by reducing nutrient pollution from the state by about half, plead for more time. A century is enough, say detractors. Agricultural interests have had about that much time to use totally voluntary approaches and nutrient pollution is now a serious problem.

At least part of the answer could well be “Choose 2,” which stems from the July report from the Iowa Policy Project, “A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution.” The IPP report offered six ideas to make a voluntary system better.

The list is not exhaustive, but the proposals are serious and science-based. The “Choose 2” concept is part of the list, and it is simple: Mandate that every producer, farm owner or renter, adopt two runoff-reducing steps — but let the farmer choose which steps.

For the many farmers already taking meaningful steps to reduce nutrient runoff, there is no impact. They have already started to reduce their pollution and can show they have.

Those who are not currently taking any steps, and thereby causing the lion’s share of the problem, would have to do something. But they would get to choose from among meaningful approaches that have been promoted by the Iowa Soybean Association, such as cover crops, grassed waterways, contour farming, terraces, bioreactors and conservation uses for oxbows. Producers could take two actions that best fit their operation, land and economic situation.

The proposal is simple but effective, and keeps a voluntary component to a solution. Isn’t it worth a discussion? Isn’t it better than knowing we’re allowing the poisoning of our water? Isn’t it better than just calling water pollution someone else’s problem and letting it go?

Posted by David Osterberg

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg, co-founder of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, is a former state legislator who chaired the House Agriculture Committee and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

See our report: “A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution,” at www.iowapolicyproject.org.

See similar versions of this piece as guest opinions in:

The Sioux City Journal, Feb. 5, 2015: “Choose 2” would provide more protection for water in Iowa

The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Jan. 31, 2015: Iowa should “Choose 2” to reduce water pollution