DM council candidate wins big running on water quality



A shot that should be heard around Iowa was fired last week in the Des Moines city elections. Josh Mandelbaum, a young environmental attorney, won a three-way race with 56% of the vote after campaigning about water quality and protecting the Des Moines Water Works.

He beat Michael Kiernan, a well-known and well-liked political type who is married to a popular KCCI personality, Erin Kiernan, and a lesser-known candidate. Mandelbaum replaces Christine Hensley, who served over 20 years on the council and was the leading Des Moines critic of the water works in its lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties.

And here we thought US District Court Judge Leonard Strand put that issue to rest last spring when he tossed the water works’ lawsuit for lack of standing.

“It’s absolutely a hot issue down here,” Mandelbaum said.

It is not dying down.

Rural legislators remain furious with the water works for suing. They tried to dissolve the water utility’s franchise even after the judge ruled against DMWW last April. Suburban legislators balked, and the effort was pushed back to the next legislative session. That kicks off in January. Mandelbaum’s election shows that Des Moines is willing to fight for the water works and will resist outliers in determining how the suburbs get their water.

“The concern is not a partisan one, it even surprised me a little bit,” Mandelbaum said. “I knocked on 6,000 doors — Democrat, independent and Republican —  and people thought it has been too long putting up with it.”

By that he means pollution of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, from which Central Iowa draws its drinking water through DMWW.

“Anyone watching this race should see it as a sign,” he said.

Not many people in northern Iowa were watching that race. It might not say much about the politics of water quality in Iowa. But the polling would tend to support Mandelbaum. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, perhaps the most respected poll in America, consistently showed that well over 60% of urban and small-town voters supported the water works position — that agriculture and nature are conspiring to elevate nitrate in our surface waters, and that agriculture should be held accountable. And, they can see that neither the legislature nor the courts will respond to their concerns. That is when change happens.

All the Democratic gubernatorial candidates are studying up on water quality and John Norris is leading with it. Gov. Kim Reynolds is run by the agribusiness machine, and so is her likely primary challenger, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett. Corbett founded the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water with Hensley and Democrat Patty Judge (who is campaigning with Fred Hubbell). The partnership defamed Bill Stowe and DMWW. So did every other corporate ag megaphone in the state. Des Moines will get its say, in return.

“There is a large number of people who care deeply about water quality,” Mandelbaum said.

The rest of the state cannot ignore Des Moines and its suburbs forever. They will be heard eventually because that’s where the entire state is moving.

Meantime, Mandelbaum is tending to his practice for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, based in Chicago with attorneys across the Upper Midwest and Washington, DC. He said that, in the absence of progress on the ground or in legislative chambers, judicial challenges are in the works based on the acres plowed by the water works. Judge Strand knocked out the water works case because drainage districts cannot be held accountable for pollution under Iowa law. Mandelbaum said that an administrative petition could be filed demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency, through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, find that drainage systems can be regulated under the 1972 Clean Water Act. He said that such a petition could result in landscape prescriptions for agriculture — that the voluntary nutrient reduction standard could be made mandatory.

“People are talking about it,” Mandelbaum replied when asked if the Environmental Law and Policy Center would pursue such a petition.