Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Joe's Neighborhood

A good man in desperate times


The grizzled man climbs up out of the litter-strewn riverbank at dusk. He hesitates. Flannel shirt wrongly buttoned over multiple undershirts, pants bunched on top of long underwear, a tight stocking cap pulled over a shaggy head with long white hair hanging from the sides. A homeless man. The blackened fingers, bitten by frost, are waved in my direction. He looks down the bike path, his head turning left and right, and then slowly shuffles towards my car in the gravel lot.

A furtive telephone call brought me down to the river’s edge. A call promising too much. I was used to dead ends and sat resignedly waiting for the man to make his way over.

I knew this part of town. The homeless camp on this bank was cleared long before winter came. Eagles work the waters below this bridge on Scott Avenue. A few fishermen hang around during the day. And, occasionally, the laughter and music from Mullets Bar will drift across and down to the sandbars. But in this evening gloom, when the early night air touches the river creating a low-slung fog, no noise is heard. Although we are in Des Moines, it could be the dank and musty Thames flowing below London Bridge, or a creaky canal in the warehouse district of Amsterdam. A place of dark deeds for sure.joes

The man leans on my car.

“What should I call you?” I ask.

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“Is Deep Throat taken?” he says in a low, growly voice.


“OK, how about Bill Stowe?”

The man, who has spent his adult life studying the river up close, saw and heard a bit too much. He has a secret that refuses to stay hidden below the layers of flannel shirts. A secret he wants to share.

“It’s in the Raccoon River,” he says. “Go check the river.”

So I do.

Down to the river I hike. The water drifts flat and syrupy. The Raccoon, born from the joinder of the North and South Raccoon, feeds into the Des Moines River at Principal Park. The Raccoon spans Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Greene, Dallas, Audubon and Guthrie Counties. It is the drain in the tub for northwest and north central Iowa. It’s here where the water flows that the man said I would find the secret.

Climbing to the water’s edge, I see that the muddy river looks darker than usual. Somewhat like the oil on your dipstick.

I take a smell.

Oh my lord. It’s crude oil — with just a bouquet of nitrates. Bakken Crude Oil. The man didn’t lie. There is a secret hidden in the river.

Back to the man I go.

Why is Bakken Crude Oil coming down the Raccoon River?

The man shuffles back and forth. Left foot, right foot, left foot. Looking down the entire time. A young schoolboy caught doing mischief.

“The nitrate level was out of control,” he says as a preamble.

I reassure him that everyone understands that problem.

“I did everything I could to make the water safe for the people of Des Moines. After bringing that lawsuit against the upstream counties, I was at my wits end. So don’t judge me harshly.”

I was perplexed.

“So I made a deal.”

It began to dawn on me at last. A deal struck in desperation. Voluntary efforts had failed. The legislature was not supportive. The governor was less than helpful. The man was at the end of his rope.

“We made a swap.”

Ah, so they did. The brilliance and audacity was stunning. Who could have possibly guessed how this man had struggled in this dance with the devil. He knew nitrates were poisoning the water. He knew there was no political will to address the problem. He knew that his chances of success were slim at best. But, the bottom line, people needed clean water.

Of course. It is so obvious. Crude oil from the Bakken fields is gushing down the Raccoon River. No doubt, the oil refineries can much more easily deal with the nitrate runoff. And, as a bonus, no more worry about oil spills in the middle of farm fields. The land is saved. Hoorah!

But what about our drinking water? What is the other side of the swap?

“The crude oil pipeline is quite clean. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Rural water comes through pipes. Your city water comes through pipes. This is not a new idea.” The man’s tone has changed. He wants me to understand. He wants me to see what he’s seen.

So, down the crude oil pipeline our water comes. Nitrate free. Just as mother nature intended. Wow. American creativity at its best.

I stare at the man as he mumbles quietly to himself. He then slowly shuffles back to the river, back below the Scott Avenue Bridge. His long white hair blowing softly on either side of his stocking cap — a rock star leaving the darkened stage. Who would have guessed?

A good man in desperate times. APRIL FOOLS

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he usually writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events. But he says this one is an April Fool’s piece and that Bill Stowe, the CEO for Des Moines Water Works, really does not live under the Scott Avenue Bridge.

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