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Des Moines Water Works explores alluvial wells to avoid river toxins, fightsCorrigan plans $20 million to lessen reliance on Raccoon

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Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan plans to spend $20 million on tapping groundwater sources sufficient to replace the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers as the utility’s principal raw water source, a move that sidesteps another direct confrontation with Republican dominated Legislature, ag commodity groups and metro suburbs.

Corrigan told The Storm Lake Times the utility could add 20 million gallons of daily capacity by drilling new wells in the Des Moines River Alluvial Aquifers over the next several years. He believes the alluvial sources are plentiful enough to serve the growing Des Moines metro and unimpaired by farm runoff.

“The water is fairly similar in quality to that in glacial aquifers,” Corrigan said on Monday. “The main difference is that they recharge when the river flows … They’re less plentiful, sure, but from a quality standpoint, they’re protected like like glacial aquifers.”

The utility explored such a shift during the tenure of former CEO Bill Stowe, who said in numerous public statements the utility must rely on surface waters to meet Central Iowa’s growing water demand. Stowe spearheaded a lawsuit against Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties in 2015 over nitrate runoff in the Raccoon River. U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand dismissed it in 2018. 

Buena Vista County Supervisor Paul Merten believes the move is a tacit admission of the lawsuit’s shortcomings. He compared the utility’s $1 million in legal fees it incurred from the lawsuit against the $20 million it’d take to drill alluvial wells.     

“This doesn’t say we were wrong about the lawsuit,” Corrigan noted. “We were put in this position because the Raccoon and the Des Moines are unusable in the first place… It’s not like this strategy doesn’t come without challenges. We still envision a need for the Des Moines and the Raccoon, we just want to be less reliant on them.”

He cautioned the shift isn’t a silver bullet to the utility’s mounting struggles with impaired water sources. The utility still plans to invest tens of millions to its nitrate removal facility in the coming years. Stowe’s plan was to invest $65 million. 

Corrigan believes the shift is the cheapest way the utility can provide reliable water to the Central Iowa metro “in the absence of litigation or significant legislation.” In three of the last four years, the Des Moines River’s registered heightened levels of microcystins, toxins released by blooms of blue-green algae. Nitrate levels in the Raccoon River have been steadily increasing above federal guidelines since the 1980s. 

Corrigan said there’s “no chance” the utility will be able to draw 80 million gallons, the utility’s maximum demand, on alluvial sources alone. The overarching strategy, he said, is to lessen the amount of river water the utility draws. It processes up to 30 million gallons of Raccoon and Des Moines in its Fleur Drive facility.     

The strategy is pending review by the utility’s engineering firm. 

“This is a change in philosophical approach to source,” Corrigan said in an interview on Monday. “This won’t be without challenge, but I see no other immediate options on the horizon.” 

THE SHIFT IS the cornerstone of making DMWW’s operations sustainable while minimizing confrontations. 

Corrigan said he doesn’t want the utility to remain the “spear carrier” of environmental justice in the state. He likened its million dollars in legal fees from the lawsuit as the cost of environmental advocacy. 

He said he wouldn’t have championed the lawsuit to the water works board of directors like Stowe did.  

“The lawsuit was a risk-reward proposition,” he said, noting he agreed with Stowe’s decision-making at the time. “Bill felt there was an injustice that needed to be corrected… It took a lot of courage to do what Bill did, both personally and professionally. I respect him for it, but I wouldn’t have done it.”

Corrigan wouldn’t rule out another lawsuit to address the impaired condition of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, but it’d have to be made with other partners. 

The utility intends to focus its advocacy with the Iowa Legislature and the Des Moines Metro, which Corrigan doesn’t view as a promising venture. At Corrigan’s recommendation, the water works board last year approved the hiring of Jennifer Terry from the Iowa Environmental Council as its community and legislative liaison.

The water works will promote regulating agricultural drainage and broker land conservation deals with metro residents who own land in the upland watershed. Corrigan said he hasn’t established criteria for either initiative to be successful. 

“We don’t know what we’re going to get out of what we’re going to do, but we have to try something,” he said. “The board doesn’t have the appetite for another lawsuit, not at this time, anyway. I don’t intend to propose another one.” 

CORRIGAN ACKNOWLEDGED his style is a departure from Stowe’s. DMWW’s CEO should prioritize ratepayers by efficient operations above all else, he said. 

“Bill Stowe was a unique personality at a unique time. His knowledge allowed the lawsuit to happen,” Corrigan said. “He was the first CEO to take that tact because nobody else in water works history was an attorney. No one saw the potentiality.”

Environmental justice is a topic that’s outside of Corrigan’s comfort zone, by way of training and political inclination. He’s a water resources engineer by training. He received a civil engineering degree from Iowa State University in 1985 before becoming DMWW’s chief operating officer in 1990. 

Stowe, also an engineer, had a law degree from the University of Loyola at New Orleans. His obituary read he was “an activist by disposition.”

“I think the CEO position is one who doesn’t just have an expertise in water operations,” said Board Chairman Graham Gillette, who voted against Corrigan’s appointment. “Environmental advocacy is paramount to the position’s success.”

Gillette has full confidence in Corrigan because he was magnanimous in being named CEO without a unanimous vote. He also hired Terry, a close friend of Stowe’s. 

He believes Corrigan will come to realize the job is more political than he currently sees it. 

“Ted Corrigan is a smart guy,” Gillette said. “I think he’ll grow into the role.”

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