Officials from Des Moines and surrounding communities last week questioned Des Moines Water Works’ (DMWW) governance and transparency and they suggested that a regional system might ultimately be more efficient, equitable and cost effective water supplier for Iowa’s largest metro area.

"I think governance and the lack of transparency are really big issues for us with the Water Works," Christine Hensley (pictured above), a member of the Des Moines City Council, said following a panel discussion sponsored by the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water (IPCW). Hensley, an IPCW board member, moderated the panel discussion.

The governance problem, said Hensley, is that the board of the DMWW is appointed solely by the mayor of Des Moines, even though it supplies water to some 20 communities in central Iowa. "You have no elected officials on the board of the Water Works and it doesn’t seem accountable," she said.

That lack of accountability and outside voices likely was instrumental in the DMWW’s decision to file a lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties over water quality issues, Hensley said. "This expensive lawsuit is likely to have a significant impact on ratepayers in all of our communities, but we had no input on the decision."

In addition, Hensley said that while DMWW has talked a lot about nitrate removal, it has said little about the utility’s recently proposed $241 million capital improvement program and the impact it would have on ratepayers and communities.

Voice at the table

Other participants in the panel discussion expressed frustration at the governance of DMWW and the lack of the communication from the water supplier.

"It would certainly be nice to have a voice at the table," said Jeff May, public works director for Clive.

E.J. Giovannetti, former Polk County supervisor and longtime mayor of Urbandale, said he shared the frustration of the governance of DMWW. "I just think that we should be able to have more input," he said.

Tom Cope, a Johnston city councilman, noted that DMWW does not make informational presentations to elected officials in the cities it serves. Other regional entities, such as the Metro Waste Authority or Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART), make it a point to make periodic updates, he said.

"I just think there needs to be more communication," Cope said.

Hensley and other panel participants suggested that it’s time to explore a regional water system that would be governed by officials from all the communities it serves.

"With over 20 communities currently purchasing water from the Des Moines Water Works, continued dialogue of a potential regional water facility is imperative," Hensley said.

DMWW chair Graham Gillette, who also participated in the panel discussion, contended that a regional water authority would be complicated to establish and could cause water rates to rise.

But Giovannetti said that it was important to study the option. "You need to put all the information on the table and slice and dice and see what works," he said.