Stowe started an earnest conversation about our state



I was stunned when Bill Stowe announced last Thursday that he suffers from a form of “aggressive” cancer that has “very few” options for treatment. Stowe, 61, said he will continue to serve as chief executive officer of the Des Moines Water Works as long as he can. Otherwise, he intends to concentrate on family and friends. He wishes that we don’t invade his privacy.

I can appreciate that. But Stowe has been very much in the public eye and ear as the chief critic of corporate agriculture in Iowa. He is not comfortable with cult status. He was a kid from Nevada who played basketball at Grinnell College back in the day, then went out of state to get a law degree and an engineering degree. He found his way back home to run the public works department for Des Moines and then the water works.


I met Stowe at an annual meeting of the Iowa Environmental Council in 2013. I was appealing to the audience to save our prairie pothole lakes from sedimentation. Stowe sat next to me at the panelists’ table. He said he was going to sue our county, and others along the Raccoon River, over nitrate pollution infecting his drinking water supply. He was matter-of-fact. It was no bluff. He said the tough part was figuring out who should be sued. So began our close association that I would like to think became a friendship.

Drainage districts deliver nitrate and dissolved phosphorous to the Raccoon and Des Moines river complexes. They are creations of the state overseen by county supervisors. The districts’ underground tile lines in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties were identified as pollution sources, and the districts were named as defendants. The entire case turned on an issue of standing — could drainage districts be sued, since they had so little authority?

Since it was a pollution claim, the counties said they could not rely on their insurers to cover defense costs. So they turned to “friends” coordinated by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa and the Farm Bureau, which ran an ad campaign assaulting the water works and Stowe. With his wavy long white hair, wool blazer and blue jeans, Stowe was blamed for starting a war between rural and urban Iowa by no less than Gov. Terry Branstad. He was a perfect figure to caricature as the urban dweller out of touch with rural concerns.

Except Stowe still owns Story County farmland farmed by his cousins. He grew up on and around the farm and the whole rural scene. Grinnell is not exactly an urban area. Des Moines is hardly San Francisco.

His love for Iowa drew him back and kept him, although he always threatened to leave in a huff.

It took courage for him to challenge the chemical cabal that controls Iowa agriculture and politics, to withstand the arrows and jabs. It took skill and political savvy for him to manage competing interests in metro Des Moines, his own board, legislators and advocacy groups. Not everyone would have had the steel to steer it. It took a commitment to Iowa for Stowe to hang on.

As it turned out, Stowe’s initial prescience was the undoing of the lawsuit. A federal judge in Sioux City dismissed the case in 2016 because drainage districts do not have the authority to respond to pollution complaints. Drainage districts lacked legal standing to be sued. The Iowa Supreme Court also weighed in against DMWW’s case, stating that money damages could not be collected by suing drainage districts.

The Iowa Legislature responded by trying to dissolve the water works by legislation, and by defunding the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University — an innocent victim of collateral anger. It should have awakened everyone to what lengths the petro-chemical industry will go to protecting its vested turf.

Stowe accelerated a conversation that had been taking place in quiet corners. Butting heads with Farm Bureau is not the normal way to get ahead in Iowa, if that’s what you’re after. The chemical companies tried to make the issue about Stowe. Stowe kept turning back to the facts: that nitrate in the Raccoon River consistently exceeds state and federal clean water standards by 40% to 100%, and it is not getting better.

He was not blaming farmers. He is one, by virtue of legacy. He was honestly stating the facts about what agriculture was doing to Iowa, and to the Gulf of Mexico, and to farmers. He never defamed Branstad or Craig Lang of the Farm Bureau. The water works sought to meet with Branstad. The governor refused. Stowe sought a meeting with Buena Vista County Attorney Dave Patton to negotiate the water works claim; the BV supervisors told Patton to cancel. Stowe spoke with the professionalism of a good attorney. He just kept making his argument that it is fundamentally unfair that Des Moines has to spend millions of dollars cleaning up what Buena Vista County sends downstream.

The case brought national attention to Storm Lake over the conflict between modern chemically based agriculture and the environment. It highlighted the impacts that climate change and human reactions impose on Iowa. It drew more attention to sustainable agriculture practices that can dramatically reduce surface water pollution. Strong majorities of Iowans surveyed in the Iowa Poll over a two-year period — including residents of small towns — agreed with the water works’ position. Things must change.

The legislature reacted by appropriating about $16 million this year for water quality improvement. That would not have happened without the lawsuit.

The water works demanded that chemical agriculture be held accountable like the rest of us. They lost that claim. It must be taken up through legislative means, Judge Leonard Strand suggested. The Iowa Legislature is not equipped to deal with a multi-state problem that involves everything from the Clean Water Act to anti-trust enforcement. Congress must, along with a new President.

That’s what the lawsuit demonstrated, essentially.

It took courage to start the conversation with honesty and professional dignity, which was not always reciprocated. It takes courage for Stowe to continue urging for the cause of clean water and healthy agriculture in Iowa, and for dissenting voices to be heard, as he considers his own destiny. Each of us should admire that and engage in a vigorous but respectful debate as Bill Stowe has. It can’t be put back in the bottle now.