Column: Lawsuit can detract from water goals

December 4, 2015
christinehensley

Christine Hensley, Des Moines City Councilwoman and a board member of Iowa Partnership for Clean Water

By Christine Hensley

Water quality represents an important issue for Iowa as a whole, something that both rural and urban citizens must collaboratively approach. Most are aware that Des Moines Water Works has sued three northwest Iowa drainage districts, placing blame squarely on upstream agriculture for nitrate in major Iowa waterways. A lawsuit, however, is not the solution Des Moines needs and will do nothing to improve water quality.

The Des Moines metro area has a unique opportunity to come together and invest in a regional water facility. We have known for decades that the current facility is out-of-date, not because of farmers who live 100 miles upstream, but largely because of the community’s vast population growth and border expansion. As a state, Iowa is in its longest period of sustained population growth since 1990 — much of this growth is centered in the metro area. Our neighbor, Dallas County, is the fastest growing county in the state and ranks in the top 15 in the nation in its size category.

A large number of these growing metro-area communities are served by Des Moines Water Works. All are customers who expect and deserve clean, affordable drinking water, with infrastructure that supports it, as well as a governing structure that is inclusive of all the communities it serves. The recent announcement of a 10 percent rate increase by Des Moines Water Works again can be attributed to outdated, inefficient facilities that cannot sustain this kind of growth nor manage changes in water usage. This is a time for uniting and investing in an efficient system that can handle the reality of the metro area’s growing population and changes in water usage for the long-term.

A lawsuit, on the other hand, will only stifle cooperation among both rural and urban stakeholders as we work together to address water quality. I fear creating a litigious approach to every problem our community faces could be wide-reaching and negatively affect our economy. Des Moines serves as a destination for trade shows, ag conferences, and equipment sales; these things contribute to the economy and the diversity of our capital city. A lawsuit that pits rural vs. urban Iowa may discourage farm families, communities and organizations from participating in Des Moines-based events — a loss for all Iowans.

Perhaps most concerning, though is the precedent a lawsuit sets for water quality initiatives in the future. We don’t want urban centers suing small groups of rural drainage districts to pay for water treatment as a temporary band-aid. To produce real, long-lasting solutions, urban and rural entities must work together. Finding a solution for all parties begins with abandoning the litigation approach and encouraging cooperation among farmers, policymakers, and all Iowans. Focusing on a regional water plan is an excellent start.

On a recent visit to Iowa, former Iowa governor and current U.S. secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, stressed the need for collaboration, not litigation. “There needs to be a collaborative effort,” Vilsack said. “This is very complex, and the chances of a judge not getting it right are high. That’s not a good solution.” I couldn’t agree more.

A question you may be asking yourself at this point is, “Why is a Des Moines City Council member so concerned about this issue?” I have experienced first-hand the negative impact the lawsuit has had on the city at the Capitol, the misunderstanding that the city was a part of the decision and lastly the negative impact on ag businesses within the city of Des Moines.

Iowa is an agricultural state with tremendous impact throughout the country. We are also the first-in-the-nation caucus state and demonstrate our ability to sort through all the various presidential candidates. Let’s continue the dialogue started and continue to expand the voices at the table. The focus needs to be on our coming together to make progress in the right direction, not division.

CHRISTINE HENSLEY is a Des Moines city councilwoman and a board member of Iowa Partnership for Clean Water.

Source: Des Moines Register

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