Bill Stowe: Water quality hero

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

160915-Stowe-130333crop
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

‘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

Tired of waiting, Des Moines Water Works speaks for all Iowans

Why should no one be surprised by Des Moines Water Works going to court? It is because the Governor and his administration have failed to act.

Last week, Des Moines Water Works’ Board of Trustees voted to issue a notice of intent to sue the Board of 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,” which threaten Des Moines’ drinking water.

Why should no one be surprised by Des Moines Water Works going to court? It is because the Governor and his administration have failed to act.

The new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) was hailed as a promising effort to improve Iowa water quality by reducing nutrient pollution from the state by about half. Research behind the strategy showed that 90 percent of the nitrate pollution coming from Iowa came from nonpoint sources, mainly agriculture.

Despite this, state policy was to require cities and towns and industries to reduce their contribution to the nutrient pollution — but to let agriculture producers do whatever they wanted. For them reducing the pollution was voluntary.

An Iowa Policy Project report last July demonstrated the shortcomings of a voluntary approach and suggested a few ways to at least give the new strategy a chance. Had these suggestions been adopted maybe the Des Moines water utility would not have been forced to go to court. The following are what the report found as shortcomings of the NRS:

Insufficient funding — The year the NRS was adopted the Legislature responded with more than $20 million of new funding to support farmers who wanted to introduce new methods to reduce their pollution. In a bipartisan effort, legislators agreed to improve spending again in 2014. However, Governor Terry Branstad vetoed $11 million in similar funding and another $9 million in REAP natural resources and recreation funding — 20 percent of which would have gone to efforts to reduce soil loss that contributes to pollution of our rivers.

Insufficient monitoring — The state has supported more than a dozen efforts by local producers and ag businesses to work to improve soil and water protection practices in their own small section of a stream. This is a wonderful opportunity to do water testing to see if the new emphasis is doing any good. Yet, monitoring is not required for this expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

Pick two — The Iowa Soybean Association, the one commodity group that seems to take an interest in improving water quality, had supported six examples of methods to improve water quality, such as grassed waterways in fields and planting cover crops to follow corn and soybean crops. Our report suggested that each farmer voluntarily adopt any two of these measures. Not all measures would necessarily be best for each producer but two surely would work. We would let farmers decide which research-backed approaches to use.

Set benchmarks and a timeline — There is no timeline for the NRS to accomplish its goal of reducing nutrient pollution by nearly half. The Water Resources Coordinating Council, a voluntary citizen group that is to ride herd on the NRS, has never been allowed to vote on a timeline. Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture is not interested in setting dates.

Will it take 100 years to accomplish the task? We don’t know. And Des Moines Water Works, standing up for all of Iowa, is reminding us all that we cannot wait.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg, co-founder of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, is a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.