Iowa’s water-quality warrior is no ‘environmental wacko’

By Tiffany Stecker | 02/29/2016 01:03 PM EST

One of the biggest water pollution fights in years is raging in Iowa, where the water utility in the state capital is duking it out in court with agriculture districts over polluted farm runoff.

One of the biggest water pollution fights in years is raging in Iowa, where the water utility in the state capital is duking it out in court with agriculture districts over polluted farm runoff.

At the heart of the fight: Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe.

Last year, Stowe, 57, persuaded his utility’s five-person board of trustees to spend up to $700,000 to sue three agricultural drainage districts over nutrients being discharged into the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers — water supplies for 500,000 people in the Des Moines area.


The lawsuit targeting farm runoff has made Stowe a hero to green groups, a label he wears uneasily.

Bill Stowe
Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. | Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works.

"I’m not a poster child for the Sierra Club," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I don’t mean to position myself, and certainly the consumers that I work for, as environmental wackos. We’re not."

What he is, he said, is a "pragmatist" and a "market Democrat" who believes in market-based solutions to problems.

His lawsuit’s goal, he said, is to regulate the state’s biggest industry, which is all but exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Much Iowa farmland has been planted on spongy soils that have to be drained for planting. So growers installed drainage tile, networks of underground pipes that draw down excess water and discharge into ditches and then into streams and rivers.

The water pouring from those pipes is loaded with nitrogen, a nutrient that nourishes crops but can form nitrates in water. High nitrate levels fuel algae blooms that smother aquatic life and make people sick.

At issue for Stowe is what pollution is regulated and what’s not. The Clean Water Act regulates "point sources" — chemical plants, wastewater treatment plants or other facilities that release pollutants from pipes. Such discharge water must meet strict permit guidelines aimed at protecting the environment and human health.

"Nonpoint sources," like agricultural or urban runoff, lack permitting requirements. This has historically shielded farmers from needing so-called Section 402 permits to account for the nutrient-laden water that rolls off the soil and into waterways.

Stowe argues that drainage tile should be considered a point source.

"It should be regulated just like a factory that’s making metal plating, or tires, or sewage treatment facilities, or a city’s stormwater system," he said.

"There’s not another business in this state that can produce and take a pipe to a river or stream and not be regulated except agriculture."

‘It’s Stowe Season’

Before he got famous for taking on farm pollution, Stowe was a local character.

In his 13 years as public works director for Des Moines, the towering, silver-haired Stowe was a regular on local TV, where he warned about road closures and plowing schedules ahead of snowstorms.

"People were hanging on Bill Stowe’s every word on whether it would snow," recalled Mike Draper, founder of the offbeat Des Moines clothing shop Raygun.

Raygun sold T-shirts that said "It’s Stowe Season." They sold out in weeks, Draper said. Another admirer started a Bill Stowe Facebook fan page that reached nearly 3,000 followers.

There’s now a blue cotton shirt saying "I’m with Stowe" in large print and "America needs clean water" in small.

It’s Stowe Season
Local company Raygun designed the “It’s Stowe Season!” t-shirt when Stowe was a regular feature on local television news. | Photo courtesy of Mike Draper.

Stowe was born and raised in Nevada, Iowa, population 6,776. The Story County city was named in 1853 for the Sierra Nevada range. His upbringing in Nevada was drawn from a Norman Rockwell painting, he said: a tight-knit community where the American dream was still attainable and affordable.

He played music and dabbled in sports in high school, but his path to public service was most influenced by his parents. His father, a materials researcher at Iowa State University, built a career developing new ways of using metals in industrial practices. His mother was a nurse who instilled in him the importance of public health, he said.

He graduated from Iowa’s Grinnell College in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He then collected three graduate degrees: a master’s in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, another master’s in industrial relations from the University of Illinois and a Juris Doctor from Loyola University Law School in New Orleans.

Stowe’s brother was killed in a construction accident, an event Stowe said precipitated his drive to improve safety. He cut his professional teeth working in human resources and labor relations in steel mills and oil refineries. And he says now he’s found his niche between the social and physical sciences.

"They somehow tie together for me intellectually and emotionally," he said.

Married and with a son in college, Stowe enjoys rumbling around on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, often riding with a group of retired firefighters and police officers.

He’s also an avid reader, usually working on two books at a time. His tastes are eclectic. Last month, he said, he read a book by Santa Teresa de Ávila, a 16th-century nun, and another on Confucianism.

On the side, he takes online courses. He said he’s currently enrolled in two: one on the Big Bang nucleosynthesis — an advanced astrophysics discipline — and another in Latin. He’s finding he has less time these days for his hobbies.

"As I get older, that tends to be something that I have a higher appetite for and less food to feed," he said.

He came to work in Des Moines in 1997 as the city’s human resources director and soon moved up to become the assistant manager for public works and engineering.

Stowe was hired to lead Des Moines Water Works in September 2012.

By April of that year, the utility was starting to remove nitrates from the water, the earliest-ever point in the year at that time. Since then, a springtime start to nitrate pollution has become the norm. He realized the biggest threat to his community was not quantity, but rather water quality.

"We were having to turn on [the denitrification facility] and run it basically constantly," he said. "That was a huge wake-up for me."

Voluntary nutrient curbs

Nitrate pollution from farms is a touchy subject in Iowa, where agriculture is a $112.2-billion-a-year economic engine.

State leaders in both parties have favored a voluntary approach to nitrate reduction, with a nod from U.S. EPA.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy released in 2013 calls for the state to reduce nitrogen from farms by 41 percent using voluntary measures.

The strategy is expected to cost $1.5 billion over 20 years.

Critics say voluntary measures to date have done little to stem farm pollution. Nutrients from Iowa and other Corn Belt states are carried by the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where they fuel a 6,500-square-mile summertime "dead zone," an area of low dissolved oxygen with little marine life.

Supporters of the nutrient strategy say placing agriculture under a regulatory system won’t work.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey (R) said voluntary measures would do more in five to 10 years than a regulatory system with fewer legal challenges.

"It would completely change the dynamics to try to figure out a regulatory process," Northey said.

The benefits are just beginning to emerge, he said, as farmers plant cover crops to bind soil and infuse nutrients in the soil to displace synthetic fertilizers. More are adopting conservation tillage, which eschews the heavy plowing of fields that can erode soil.

Northey likens the push for agricultural conservation to household recycling: Little by little, he said, it will become the normal way of managing land.

A voluntary strategy won’t be cheap, Northey cautioned. The cost, shared by government and farmers, will likely reach the billions. But the outcome for water quality, he said, will be preferable.

"The folks on the regulatory side, they want to define a timeline as a failure of some sort," he said. "We argue there’s not a finish point because we’re going to ask more of ourselves as we improve the strategy."

Stowe is skeptical. Voluntary practices are being used by a "small, small, small fraction" of corn and soybean producers, he said.

"We [regulate] because there is a huge public consequence for voluntary or ‘Wild West’ unregulated kind of content," he said.

The call for regulation comes as the economy of Iowa evolves toward high tech. Des Moines has aggressively courted large data centers to the city, and Google Inc. is investing $1 billion to expand its data center in nearby Council Bluffs.

"Agriculture is not the only game in town; manufacturing is not the only game in town," said Stowe.

‘Ugly’ fights

Des Moines Water Works has the largest denitrification facility in the world. In 2013, the utility spent $900,000 to operate the facility. Last year, the machines ran for 177 days — beating 1999’s record of 106 days — and cost $1.5 million to operate. Upgrading the facility would cost about $100 million.

So on Jan. 8, the utility announced its intent to sue. Though the move was novel, the frustration was not, Stowe said.

"High concentrations of nitrates for us have been a reality for 25 years," Stowe said. "We’ve tried collaboration, we’ve tried partnering … with the ag community, and ultimately all it led to was more delay and worse results."

Stowe owes his drive to hold agriculture accountable in part to his work with electric utility MidAmerican Energy Co., as well as stints with Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Inland Steel Industries Inc. — highly regulated sectors.

"There’s no rush to say, ‘Oh, gosh, let’s try volunteerism,’ or ‘Who’s going to pay to clean it up?’" he said. "It falls clearly on the backs of the producers, as it should."

If the lawsuit doesn’t go in the utility’s favor, Stowe is ready to push for legislation that will keep agriculture accountable. That, too, will be an uphill battle.

"It will be equally ugly at the political level," he said.

Though Des Moines Water Works hasn’t attempted legislation yet, agriculture has already begun to fight back. The Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, an organization that promotes voluntary conservation practices to clean up waterways with ties to the Iowa Farm Bureau, has disparaged Stowe in TV ads across Iowa, criticizing a $500,000 bonus the CEO will receive if he stays through 2020, as well as recent water rate hikes from the utility. Des Moines Water Works has said Stowe deserves the bonus because of his leadership during the lawsuit.

It hasn’t been easy for Stowe. He said he’s received threats on his life from those who believe the lawsuit will hurt agriculture.

But the Water Works lawsuit has also brought Stowe a fresh wave of local support, Raygun’s Draper said.

The company has sold hundreds of its "I’m with Stowe" shirts to show support for the legal challenge and published a racy thriller loosely based on the fight over nitrates.

Stowe’s image has come a long way from the "long-haired, middle-aged sex symbol who was in charge of snow removal," Draper said.

Stowe shies away from the publicity. He asked his fans to take his Facebook page offline.

"I’m a public servant," he said. "While I appreciate support, I also appreciate privacy."