Sacrifice State An Interview with Bill Stowe

by Bill Stowe

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Rootstalk: I read the court ruling on Des Moines Water Works versus the counties [DWWW brought suit against three agricultural counties upstream from Des Moines, in which the agency held that the counties should be considered to be point-source polluters, and should pay damages for the negative effects their practices had on Iowans living downstream]. I was wondering what you thought of the ruling, and if you were to respond to it, what you would say.

Stowe: You know, there are actually two rulings. I assume you read the Iowa State Supreme Court decision and then there was also a decision from a U.S. District Court here in Iowa. In both cases, we were certainly disappointed. In the Iowa case, the Iowa Supreme Court by a 3 to 2 majority, basically said that we did not have standing to…sue [the] drainage districts in Iowa. [These are the] public utilities that drain farmland. [They are] supervised by a county board of supervisors [and are held to be] immune from suits, particularly [those brought by] other public entities [such as] the Des Moines Water Works. So, [we were] certainly disappointed by that [decision]. But I understand and respect the rule of law and the court’s ultimate jurisdiction.

The other ruling was from a Federal Court, and we had serious disagreement with [the ruling because it] essentially just sidestepped the whole idea about whether agriculture is immune from suit for violations of environmental laws. And that is a far more serious issue for us than this kind of nuanced issue about whether a local government can sue another local government within the Iowa Constitution. So, we accepted the Iowa Supreme Court decision, we were disappointed by it, certainly, but the federal decision that essentially said it wasn’t even going to rule on the basic issue of whether agriculture should be regulated under the Clean Water Act was a huge disappointment for us.

Rootstalk: Why do you think they ruled that way?

Stowe: Well, I mean, clearly the judge thought he was following federal law. We think it’s an error of law and certainly regret that. But you know the motives of judges and the motives of all of us are always arguable, and [it’s] pretty speculative for us to put ourselves in their position and guess why it is they did it. I have every reason to believe that the federal judge believed he was following federal law, but it just reinforces the myth that agriculture is unregulated under the Clean Water Act. And that’s a huge concern for us and should be for all Americans. Yeah, I mean what kind of precedent-keeping is that law? I think it’s pretty narrow, because this is out of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. So relatively narrow.

District court rulings generally aren’t authoritative in driving decisions of other district courts, but it certainly makes an argument that our enemies will carry forward into other venues even though I don’t think it decides the case. It certainly gives them a bit of an upper hand that we would certainly not intend to give them.

Rootstalk: So, given the results of a case, where does Des Moines Water Works go from there?

Stowe: The decisions are about two years old now and we’re in the process of spending millions more dollars on water cleaning processes because we just don’t see anything other than a downward trend in surface water quality in Iowa. Now that agriculture has seemingly been given a free license in the wild, wild West to do whatever they want in terms of environmental damage to our surface waters, we’re compensating for that by spending a significant amount of money—tens of millions of dollars over the next five to 10 years—to deal with the fact that polluters don’t have accountability here, and [will] continue—in their narrow self-interest—to push pollutants to us downstream. We’ll we have to make that water safe and affordable for our consumers.

Rootstalk: How are you making it affordable?

Stowe: Well, by using technologies that we believe are most effective both in terms of an end result but also most efficient in terms of cost. But at the end of the day, there’s no question that our ratepayers are subsidizing upstream producers who are polluters that are polluting our surface waters. And that’s a real problem. There is an extra analogy there. The industrial agricultural model of row crops (corn and soybeans) and livestock (particularly hogs) in Iowa and their current method of farming particularly in our waterways is exporting all kinds of pollutants into the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. And our rate-payers are paying to clean it up just to make it safe for them to drink.

Rootstalk: How do the upstream producers pollute it?

Stowe: By the very act of adding anhydrous ammonia, by adding manure to crop land and then draining it in a way that exports it to the river. So, it’s endemic in the agricultural model that unfortunately we’re stuck in right now, where greater production is the watchword as opposed to greater sustainability and greater attention to regenerative agriculture.

Rootstalk: Do you think that’s going to shift at all?

Stowe: I’m certainly not a prophet. Or if I am, I’ve done a pretty poor job so far in my life. at prophesizing what’s going to happen. I think there will be a shift over time because ultimately this model of industrial agriculture actually lessens and exhausts the resource of the land that the farmers themselves own.

Rootstalk: That’s very scary. But it also seems like, at least in name, the state is trying to address it with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy?

Agricultural runoff in Iowa, 1999. Photograph by Lyn Betts. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Agricultural runoff in Iowa, 1999. Photograph by Lyn Betts. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Stowe: I’m a native Iowan. I’m 60 years old. I’ve been around the state for most of those 60 years. And the idea of conservation practices adopted by some farmers and not by others has been really the only [established environmental protection policy concerning] the surface waters of the state. So, the Nutrient Reduction Strategy essentially codified what’s the status quo in a very ineffective process with stakeholders who have every interest in maintaining the status quo and maintaining a voluntary strategy which really does nothing, other than continue to encourage producers to produce more and pollute more.

Rootstalk: How does it encourage producers?

Stowe: It encourages producers by saying what you’re doing now, [you can] do more of it because we need to feed the world, when in fact, we’re poisoning those downstream who use the water. As an example, in pesticide drift there are other aspects of the industrial agricultural model that go beyond drinking water. But I think you get the point that a model of tilling more land, adding more chemicals, producing higher yields in the short-term, continues to lead towards long-term consequences. The short-term effects [include] things like the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the type of water quality that we’re experiencing here in Iowa. Who wants to go swimming or boating in our rivers? We would far prefer, as Iowans, to go to Minnesota, Wisconsin, where we know the waters are better protected and in better shape than we would here. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy plays into that do-nothing, whistle-in-the-dark kind of mentality.

Rootstalk: So, what’s next?

Stowe: Well ultimately, we hope cooler regulatory heads will prevail. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency right now is a complete debacle [in the way it’s] rolling back environmental protections. But the timeframe for that obviously is a concern for us because many of the issues that we face are short-term public health consequences. Seventy-five percent or so of Des Moines Public School students receive subsidized school lunches. They and their parents, their families, are paying higher water rates because polluters upstream who affect the drinking water downstream are unaccountable.

“We have just become the sacrifice state—the pollutants sinkhole, if you will—in which these industrial models that generate lots of waste and lots of agro toxins are allowed to continue unfettered.”

Rootstalk: I think a lot of people might say, “It’s very difficult to farm, and if you’re trying to feed as many people as possible and keep the farm afloat…you need to use chemicals.” How do you respond to that?

Stowe: Well, there are a couple of things going on in the question. One of them is that “farming is difficult.” That may well be, but it’s a business, and you know we’re not talking about some kind of Norman Rockwell picture here or American Gothic. Farming in this state is a multimillion-dollar business. This is industrial agriculture, with industrial chemicals, and industrial hybrid seeds, and industrial machinery, [all used on a] large scale. So, [let’s] break that myth a little bit. More production of hogs and field corn and soybeans isn’t necessarily feeding the world. If you go to a local market, 90 percent or so of the food that you’re buying is not from Iowa. We have just become the sacrifice state—the pollutants sinkhole, if you will—in which these industrial models that generate lots of waste and lots of agro toxins are allowed to continue unfettered.

Rootstalk: Wow, that’s tough language to use, calling Iowa [an environmental] sinkhole. Can you can go into that more?

Stowe: Sure, happy to. If you were to look longitudinally at the water quality in this state, you’re going to see alarming trends of more and more pollutants coming into our waters. There are many people within the public health community that see manifestations of that which are very disconcerting. In Iowa, private wells aren’t tested, but [there’s] a lot of concern that there are consequences [affecting our] drinking water. [This is] an essential part of our day-to-day living [which has significant] social and economic implications, particularly for those with lesser incomes. And, again, to [call the] current farming model at work on Iowa’s family farms “subsistence farming” is really [to perpetuate] a myth.

We need to think as a community and think of the implications of the continued emphasis on higher yields and short-term profits in industrial agriculture. [We need to turn] away from that, and start thinking more about the community aspects for our neighbors, for our communities, for downstream water users, and—ultimately—for the soil that we all depend on in this state for our economic prosperity.

The bottom line is this: drinking water is going to become unaffordable or else available but dangerous for people to drink. And that is a significant concern for those of us who are in this business. We’re not selling a typical commodity, we’re in the public health business. I’m not selling Grinnell Pioneer sweatshirts or beer. I’m in the process of working, with many others, to sell drinking water, which you can’t live without.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. To hear our complete conversation, visit our website:

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About Interviewee Bill Stowe
Portrait image of interviewee Bill Stowe.
Photo courtesy of the estate of Bill Stowe
Bill Stowe, the CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), recently passed away after a brief struggle with pancreatic cancer. In the weeks before his death, he spoke with Rootstalk Associate Editor Maya Dru concerning his long battle on behalf of the water-consuming public he served at the head of his agency. Under Stowe’s leadership, DMWW worked closely with business, environmental, consumer and agricultural leaders to advocate for better stewardship of water resources and clean water initiatives throughout Central Iowa. Stowe was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Grinnell College with a Bachelor of Arts, and he also held a Master of Science in Engineering (University of Wisconsin), a Master of Science in Industrial Relations (University of Illinois), and a Juris Doctorate Degree (Loyola University Law School). Stowe sat on the Board of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, representing the largest drinking water utilities in North America. He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a member of the Iowa Bar, and he frequently acted through the American Arbitration Association as an impartial arbitrator in resolving complex construction and commercial disputes involving public and private construction projects.