Our Region. Our Water.
Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) has announced a five-year, $241 million infrastructure improvement plan. When evaluating the factors affecting the need for the expansion of facilities at DMWW, the primary factor appears to be increased demand for water in the metropolitan area due to population growth.
A recent review of DMWW’s own CH2M Nitrate Management Plan by former DMWW CEO L.D. McMullen reveals that capital costs are being driven by the growth in customer base, and that “if the existing three treatment plants were available and the water demand was as it was in 1990, there would be no need for additional nitrate treatment.”
Currently, the DMWW facility serves Des Moines and more than twenty surrounding communities and water districts, however, and demand has grown significantly since 1990. One thing hasn’t changed – the suburb communities that now make up more than half of total water consumption do not have a voice in decision-making.
The CH2M report (figures 2-3 and 2-4 below) also reveals that nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers fluctuate on a yearly basis, but have remained virtually unchanged for decades, overall. The major factors that determine the nitrate concentration in the river are as follows:
- The amount and timing of rainfall in the watershed
- Mineralization of organic soil matter
- The crop type and acreage planted in the watershed
- The amount of fertilizer applied to the land in the watersheds
- Municipal and industrial discharges
Some utility investment models and water treatment processes have not been thoroughly explored at this time. It is certain that a combination of physical and biological treatment methods are needed to ensure cost-effective nitrate removal moving forward. Ensuring that appropriate investments are made to keep up with a growing population while taking into account reasonable projections is crucial. It seems that in some cases, future growth and future nitrate levels have been overestimated, and therefore planned infrastructure investments may not reflect reality.
A regional water facility solution would consider input from the communities currently served by several disparate water works organizations, and allow for representative governance of an increasingly regional utility. This is a long-term solution for a long-term issue and would impact all infrastructure decisions, including nitrate removal.
While there has been much discussion and groundwork laid by groups such as the Central Iowa Regional Drinking Water Commission (CIRDWC), there is still no true framework in place to address these concerns and to make decisions for Central Iowa’s water supply.
Given the threat of some communities breaking away from Des Moines Water Works to pursue their own treatment facilities, this conversation must advance. The foundation of a Central Iowa regional water facility is promising, and Iowa Partnership for Clean Water supports further exploration, and consideration of the key factors below.
Governance will be one of the most significant points to consider when planning for the regional water facility. It is made clear in the Black & Veatch feasibility study that most stakeholders expressed a desire to have a say in setting rates and charges, in addition to overall system planning. As such, a sizeable Board of Directors, and several specific operational/technical committees would need to be assembled that accurately reflect the diverse communities represented by the regional water facility.
Who will ultimately make a decision to change the governance structure of our water utility to give participating communities a voice?
Des Moines Water Works has announced a five-year, $241 million plan for structural improvements to its facilities, in order to correct current infrastructure inadequacies. This plan includes expenditures for nitrate-removal; however, the specific expense is unclear. It appears that nitrate facilities are no more than 25 percent of the capital investments identified.
How will costs be allocated to fulfill the remaining 75 percent of the capital improvement plan while supporting the needs of growing and stable communities alike?
Financial Equalization and Ownership
When uniting several communities to form a regional water facility, some funds will need to be reallocated from smaller communities to Des Moines Water Works in order to acknowledge the difference in contribution and demand. Ratepayers in some communities will have higher costs due to required capital investments in a regional system. This investment will need to be paid by ratepayers in those communities. According to the study, the regional water system will own a predicted $100 million in a debt instrument, to be paid back through rates in proportion to ownership stake.
What effect would regional governance have on cost distribution between communities?
This is a long-term solution to a long-term issue. Ultimately, the creation of a regional water facility will impact hundreds of thousands of Central Iowans. Thus, it would be essential to effectively communicate to ratepayers the advantages of such an approach, in addition to the changes that ratepayers will experience during the transition. It would also be important to be transparent about any changes in rates, either up or down, that communities may experience.
Is there a transparent process in place to ensure the public is involved in creating a collaborative agreement?