Nor Any Drop to Drink
By Michael McAllister
If a homily could be rewritten, no doubt Bill Stowe would offer a revision of the idea that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. He would remind us of the necessity for water, an inclusion that fits well since the delivery of safe drinking water to people costs money—enter taxes—and that without it people die.
At the annual meeting of Poweshiek CARES, held March 14, Stowe blended bits of history, chemistry, and geology with heavy doses of politics and activism to inform the near-capacity crowd in the Community Room at the Drake Library of the issues affecting the glass of water one draws from the kitchen sink.
Poweshiek CARES (Community Action to Restore Environmental Stewardship) formed in 2012 as a group of concerned citizens protesting the encroachment of CAFOS (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) in the state of Iowa. Meetings were convened and action initiated before the group even had a name.
In the years that have followed, CARES has made its presence known to the community, to county officials, to legislators, and to corporate agriculture. Currently, CARES is working with a state-wide coalition toward a moratorium on constructing new CAFOS or expanding current operations “until Iowa takes meaningful action to lower the number of impaired rivers, lakes and waterways to fewer than 100,” according to Rod Boshart, writing in The Gazette of Cedar Rapids in September of 2016.
Impaired rivers, lakes, and waterways—it is this issue that binds the health of Iowa residents and the quality of Iowa life to both corporate agricultural concerns and individual farming operations. And Iowa is not the only area involved, for flowing water takes its contents with it. What happens in Iowa does not stay in Iowa; polluted water can travel to the Gulf of Mexico, causing damage at its destination and all along the way.
Water issues brought Bill Stowe (below); native of Navada, Iowa; graduate of Grinnell College (‘81); and CEO of Des Moines Water Works to Grinnell on March 14 with the message that Iowans need to take action if acceptable water quality is to be maintained.
Following a brief business meeting, during which CARES board members introduced themselves and spoke of action they have taken in the past year to promote their cause, Stowe was introduced by Johathan Andelson, Director of the Center for Prairie Studies at Grinnell College, who spoke briefly on the topic of heroes.
We have long revered heroes who have conquered territories and peoples, Andelson stated, but today demands a new type of hero, one who seeks not to conquer but to sustain, and he referred to Bill Stowe as such a man.
Stowe took the podium with an overview of developments involving the Des Moines Water Works, the Iowa state legislature, and the implications of those developments.
Grinnell’s water comes from an aquifer. Water in Des Moines and the towns that surround it comes from the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. By the time Grinnell’s water is brought to the surface, certain geological filtration has occurred. On the other hand, the water that Stowe works to purify comes from the surface, prone to the nutrients washed off fields, nutrients from fertilizers and animal waste applied to boost the land to produce ever-stronger yields.
To express the issue simply if crudely, Iowa’s water quality can be significantly affected by what goes into and what comes out of livestock.
Bill Stowe’s obligation to provide safe, affordable water for the people served by the Des Moines Water Works led to national attention, beginning in 2015, when his agency brought suit against three northern Iowa counties, under the Clean Water Act, for polluting the Raccoon River and costing the Des Moines Water Works hundreds of thousands of dollars in water-processing expenses.
Three days after Stowe’s appearance in Grinnell, the suit went down in dismissal. The Des Moines Register reported on March 17 that a federal judge determined the issues involved in the suit are matters that must be dealt with by the legislature.
And the present Iowa legislature has made one position clear with a bill—HF 484; SF 456—that would cause the Des Moines Water Works and other independent utility councils to “cease to be the governing body of the water utility” and would establish city councils as the controlling entities.
Stowe sees the move as “clearly a retribution to our lawsuit,” reported the Des Moines Register on February 17. The dispute prompted a Poweshiek CARES Action Alert, distributed to attendees at the March 14 meeting, declaring, “We don’t want to become another Flint, Michigan,” urging people to in turn urge Senator Kapucian and Representative Maxell to “please vote no on this bill.”
During its Friday, March 24, edition, IPR’s Iowa Press reported that the bill may stall out in the legislature.
Stowe went on to explain one of the situations responsible for the current crisis: the science of detection and the science of treatment are yielding significant results, but they cannot keep pace with the science of industrial agriculture. Some degree of control is required.
Stowe used the analogy of a catalytic converter, saying that, on his way back to Polk County from Poweshiek County, his vehicle would make use of that device, a required piece of equipment. He was not given a choice as to whether the emissions-control unit was part of his automobile. It is mandated because it will protect the environment, and similar mandates need to be in place across the spectrum of environmental concerns.
Among the questions posed during the closing segment of the presentation was the issue of what the average citizen can do. Stowe stressed involvement, referring to Poweshiek CARES as the type of organization than can have an impact on environmental-protection measures.
The issue of water quality in Des Moines, the disputes of the Iowa state legislature, and the decisions issued by judges may seem remote at times from the everyday concerns of Grinnellians, but the connections resemble those of the natural world in which one action begets another, which begets another, and another, and so on.
More than fifty years ago, Rachel Carson warned that “the most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.” She was referring to herbicides and pesticides.
The irony at work in America’s Midwest today is that the chemicals Carson warned against have been banned or can be neutralized in waterways, yet excessive applications of other elements such as nitrogen and phosphorous have yielded a new range of serious problems.
The lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Water Works against Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties has been dismissed, and the bill to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works may be stalled, but the issues of water quality and pollution control are anything but over.