Thursday, January 27, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

‘I’m not a vegan, I’m a meatatarian.’


The clean water appears below us, deep down the shaft at Des Moines Water Works.  A submarine view.  The man and I gaze reverently down the tube.  Neither of us talk.  It seems we’ve discovered a new planet.  Clean water.  In a galaxy far, far away.joes1

My guide to Des Moines Water Works checks me over.  And I him.  His long white hair is parted off-center, eyebrows still dark from a once-upon-a-time youth, and soft, gentle eyes. All wrapped in a work shirt, work jeans and work shoes. “Maintenance man” would be my guess, especially with the key ring strapped to his belt.

“And here’re the tanks that remove the nitrates.”

Ah, the problem of nitrates. Too much of this stuff in our water and we’re talking serious illness and sometimes death, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Not a good thing. And my guide told me that Des Moines has had too much for too long, requiring these machines to work too hard to keep our water safe. And, as nitrates keep increasing, new expensive machines are going to be needed. He doesn’t think Des Moines should pay to remove the nitrates put in our water from upstream farms and pig lots. It’s time to sue to make the upstream folks pay the bill or clean up.

“This state has to be something more than a feedlot between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers. Our interest is safe drinking water. The other side’s interest is avoiding regulation. No one in the science community believes that voluntary efforts are working.”


My guide sadly shakes his head and continues our tour through Water Works.  Large old basins, smelling of high school swimming pools, line the long hallway. Not a soul is around. We walk into watery rooms crisscrossed with narrow walkways. Water is being treated in every direction I look. I start walking on the balls of my feet, certain I’ll fall into your next glass of water.joes2

“Everybody with half of a brain understands that the corn belt is the main contributor to poisoning the Gulf. What you’re going to hear from the Farm Bureau is that weather is the real culprit. Well, water does not create nitrogen. It transports it. Nitrogen is an element. What’s happening is that anhydrous ammonia from fertilizer and sewage from 21 million hogs are getting into our waterways. Stop with the smoke and mirrors of volunteerism.”

My guide lumbers forward, deep into Water Works. I realize I’m being guided by a bear. His broad back slightly bent. Head leading down the hall. One eye on his cubs. Confident in each step.

“Our state leadership says we are feeding the world, and more livestock is a good thing. We don’t even ask the basic question what is the point of saturation. What is the point when we have too many hogs? Twenty-one million hogs in this state. Seven times more than we have people. If we had 21 million people, we’d be very concerned about the sewage treatment systems and about the environmental implications of that. But when we have 21 million hogs, we think it is a great business opportunity and we fight any regulation.”

We walk into a mammoth generator room — high ceilings, large tanks and marks on the wall to show how high the floodwaters rose in 1993.  He points out the flood lines that show the building was overwhelmed.  But Water Works survived to clean water another day, he emphasizes.

“Volunteerism is a failure. It’s the tragedy of the commons. We can agree in principal that we should not abuse a natural resource that we share, but when it comes right down to it, our self-interest will trump that. If we depended on volunteerism for income taxes, or for abiding by the speed limit, or for air traffic control, or for THE SAFETY OF regulation of food or pharmaceuticals, we’d kill a lot of people. You can only do this through regulation.”joes3

He doesn’t want to sound fanatical. He doesn’t want to be marginalized into a category we can readily dismiss. He is a pragmatic environmentalist. He is not pro-Democrat or pro-Republican. He doesn’t think either party is measuring up. Neither has the political will to fight Farm Bureau, to fight big agriculture. Water is his business, and he wants to do good business for his clients. So now he’s going to use the legal system to do good business for his clients.

“If you go through our employees’ parking lot, you will not see bumper stickers to save the whales. They take rivers that are essentially industrial agricultural avenues to the Gulf of Mexico and turn it into water you and I can use. The people I work for, the board I work for, believe that safe drinking water is a fundamental human right.  It has to be safe, it has to be affordable, it has to be in quantities that people can use.  That’s what these folks do.  And that’s my job.”

Bill Stowe, CEO for Des Moines Water Works, smiles.

“Listen, the folks here are dirt-under-the-fingernails environmentalists, and so am I… I’m not a vegan, I’m a meatatarian.”

And, with a laugh, off he lumbers to continue the fight. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

One Comment

  1. Karyn says:

    Great article explaining the problem of Iowa’s water quality and how pollution from corporate farming is impacting our
    drinking water. Thanks to the Des Moines Water Works, Iowa CCI and the citizens who support holding Big Ag responsible
    for the damage they have done!

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