The demise of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that targeted our county and two others is good and overdue news, if it in fact ends this lengthy court struggle that has pitted rural against urban and producers (crops) against consumers (water.)
But that doesn’t mean the responsibility to do better ends here.
In fact, water quality is an issue that should concern us all - and it shouldn’t require being sued to get our attention.
Since this suit was filed, progress has accelerated in efforts to protect the environment, particularly in the Raccoon River watershed. Local cities and the country have joined a wider watershed coalition, that we hope turns out to be a lot more than a way to spend some government funding while appearing to do something.
The proof is in the pudding, they say. It will be interesting to see if the environmental momentum, the research, the improved practices, and the public attention, remain as motivated without the threat of a huge lawsuit for millions and millions of dollars hanging over the heads of the three counties and the Iowa farming community in general.
If we don’t continue to address nutrient reduction and other anti-pollution and preservation efforts for our water, land and air, these two years of frustration and struggle and all of the money expended by both sides in this suit will have been wasted.
If we do build on the momentum, as unfortunate as the cause was, and achieve real progress in the field as a result, then there is something good to be harvested from this messy battle.
As is so often the case, what begins as a challenge, can turn out to be a benefit.
This is where our real mettle will be tested. Now we won’t be doing it to appear more proactive in hopes of escaping this lawsuit or similar future attacks, but because we care about our rivers, lakes, streams, marshes and creeks.
We won’t be doing it just because suburbanites are using that water to boil their pasta and steep their tea, but because we give a damn about outdoor beauty, habitat, and all the creatures that depend on our natural resources. Iowa has only about 1 percent of its wild places left intact, and caring for that precious sliver of prairie and open water is not too much to expect.
It’s ridiculous, really, that we still don’t have the sales tax for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Trust Fund. In 2010, 63 percent of Iowa voters approved the constitutional amendment for three-eights of one cent in sales tax to boost water quality and outdoor recreation.
The legislature has simply refused to take the required action to do as the public has directed. In polls, Iowans have continued to support the tax, and it should be done.
Once it is, we will need to wisely direct how the funding is used, to get a better bang for the buck, and ensure that water quality, not politics, is always the top focus.
For every year that passes, $180 million or so is lost that should be helping projects for the Raccoon River, Storm Lake, and all around the state, and that is sad.
Meanwhile, the Water Works is fighting for its life, amid a legislative effort this year trying to replace its board with a regional entity. Yeah, this is partly out of longstanding concern that the Water Works has failed to give a voice to its communities. But it would be naive to think that it isn’t also, to some extent, revenge for the Water Works suing Iowa counties and attacking the business that Iowa still very much runs off.
Perhaps a compromise can be achieved in the way the currently autocratic Water Works is managed, making the utility more accountable to all of the communities it serves. Perhaps, if they had been given their due involvement in the decision-making, this lawsuit might never have happened, or at least not been pursued to this insane level of expense.
The lawsuit was an ill-conceived, barely-disguised attempt to unload the cost of updating water treatment equipment at the expense of three very rural counties that the Water Works incorrectly assumed would be defenseless.
If the goal was ever to actually improve the environment, that isn’t likely to happen in a courtroom, with Iowans suing Iowans. The Water Work has expended probably $1.5 million of its ratepayers’ money on lawyers by now, with nothing at all to show for it. That money would have gone a long way toward improving its treatment process. The environmental groups that became involved could have spent this time on outdoor projects rather than legal wrangling.
The counties’ costs may be in the same ballpark - it had surpassed a million bucks last fall. Luckily, ag groups and other counties came to the rescue with funding help for which local taxpayers should be eternally grateful, but their money could have been used for promotion of corn and soybeans instead of defending a baseless lawsuit. It could have gone to actual programs helping farmers employ conservation measures, or good research into alternatives.
The state was split by this lawsuit. Enough of that. We all have the same goals here. Think our farmers don’t care about the environment? It is their life and livelihood. All of us need our ag community to thrive, and want the environment to be protected with equal fervor.
Why are we fighting each other here?
Rural and urban Iowans are opposed no more. Post lawsuit, it will take all of our voices together being heard to do what is best for our state.