Editorial

What is lawsuit really after?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Iowans suing Iowans is difficult enough to swallow, but the concept of rewarding such an expensive and some might suggest ultimately fruitless legal entanglement is a bit troubling.

Des Moines Water Works, at the urging of its CEO Bill Stowe, has sued Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties over the state of river water flowing downstream to make up part of the metro's drinking water supply. The case has already drug on since March, and probably won't even see a courtroom until next summer.

Now, we see that Stowe is being offered close to half a million dollars in bonus pay if he sticks around through 2020 at the Water Works - while the utility plans to raise customer rates by a whopping 10 percent.

The chair of the Water Works board says Mr. Stowe deserves all that money - they call it a "retention bonus" - in part for his leadership for the controversial lawsuit, according to a Des Moines Register report.

In other words, they don't want to end up languishing in a legal battle while the guy who helped to put them there jumps to a new better-paying job in a bigger city.

"Some people have drawn a target on Bill's back," the chairperson was quoted. "He wanted some assurances if he stayed and did a good job, that he would get rewarded."

It's not our place to question people's pay. Hey, if someone offers you a fat check, more power to you.

If we were going to question, we'd probably start with the fact that the five highest paid public employees in the state for this past year were all sports coaches - not people researching to cure cancer, or great educators, political leaders, or extraordinary people of arts or literature. But that's another story for another day.

Stowe, we assume, is good at his job at the Water Works, and that it must require rare skill and knowledge; he was doing okay even before the bonus and lawsuit.

Most people in Iowa would probably like to have a $500,000 bonus, for continuing to show up for their job.

The people who are going to be stuck paying a higher water bill every month in Des Moines, to cover costs of water works infrastructure that has been described as "crumbling" in the city's own media, will probably wish they had some kind of bonus.

I'll bet the taxpayers of our county, who stand to be repaying legal costs for a long time for a court battle that they had no hand in causing, could use a bonus, too.

One would suppose that if the Water Works is successful in court and leverages a princely settlement it can use to offset the costs of updating their old nitrate system - at the expense of fellow Iowans in three rural counties - perhaps that bonus payout will seem like a pretty good investment. But if they are unsuccessful, and Des Moines consumers end up eating legal costs on top of their hefty rate increase while the Water Works leader collects a six-figure bonus finishing up his career, there could be trouble in River City.

Although we're being targeted in our county, we can't hold a grudge against our Des Moines cousins - who after all, just want decent water in their homes. We are all Iowans, and we all have a stake in protecting water quality and recreational resources that our rivers represent. It is a shame that we couldn't have cooperated in working toward a solution without resorting to filing lawsuits, as Ag Secretary Vilsack has proposed and the Water Works rejected. In the end, though, if rivers do get cleaner, it will be a common rural-urban public commitment that does that trick. Don't let this pit Iowans against Iowans, we're going to need each other.

A lawsuit doesn't clean a river. The main beneficiaries of a protracted legal battle will only be the lawyers.

Really, what do the Water Works people think is going to happen if they win?

A halt to farming in Iowa? A ban on nitrogen and other applications that make farming on an Iowa scale viable? Pulling up all the tile lines and going marsh?

What will happen, we'd bet, if this case is successful and leads to a large settlement, is that more and more urban and rural population groups around the country will drag each other into court looking for a payday.

It is ultimately about money, isn't it? Rural farmers fear costs of meeting unreasonable demands to do the near impossible - prevent runoff from water falling on land. Des Moines naturally doesn't want to pay the cost of necessary nitrate-removal treatment and equipment to consume water out of a river. The Water Works seems far less indignant and aggressive about the state of water leaving Des Moines in the river, however, than they do what they get in.

It also didn't seem terribly interested in Ag Secretary Vilsack's plea to end the legal battle in favor of a dialogue outside the courtroom, or assistance to speed conservation improvements and development of technology like time-release nutrients. It wants to sue, now, period.

Stowe himself explained the thought process, in an article on our lowa mess in, no less, the New York Times.

"It's very clear to me that traditional, industrial agriculture has no real interest in taking the steps that are necessary to radically change their operations in a way that will protect our drinking water," he said.

"Radical."

One wants to take care with that term. Agriculture and agri-industry may not seem important in the land of mega-malls, but it is still the backbone of the state economy, rural and urban, and the source of a vast number of our jobs. The world depends on our production. Is there still room for improvement in conservation farming? Of course. But farmers have sought that for years, that's not "radical." Water monitoring or even some federal regulation on nitrates in drainage water isn't so radical.

The agenda for Stowe and company will be evident soon enough. But are we ready for the implications of this conflict, which could be felt long after he's collected his bonus and gone into the sunset?