Staff Columnist

Bill Stowe's clean water fight in Iowa will continue

Bill Stowe
Bill Stowe

Bill Stowe shoved water quality to the front burner in Iowa, and his critics boiled over.

Former Gov. Terry Branstad insisted Stowe and the Des Moines Water Works he ran had “declared war on rural Iowa” when the agency filed a lawsuit in 2015 against officials in three rural counties over nitrate pollution tainting the city’s water supply. The Iowa Farm Bureau hastily erected a well-financed facade known as the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, enlisting some political heavyweights to counter the lawsuit’s demand that agriculture be held responsible for pollution. The Iowa Legislature even considered a bill that would have dismantled the water works, although its backers swore it had nothing to do with the lawsuit.

Most of all, what burned Stowe’s detractors was his easy eloquence, his remarkable ability to explain Iowa’s pressing water quality problems with hard facts, good humor and sharp clarity. When his critics came up against him in public forums, they were little match for Stowe as he fearlessly made his case.

“Iowa is in a water quality crisis, and agriculture is the prime contributor to the crisis,” Stowe told a panel in 2015 that included members of the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. “If you don’t start from the point this is a crisis, you’re missing our point.”

We lost his strong, clear voice this past weekend, just a few weeks after Stowe announced he’d been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. I knew Stowe only as a public servant and a fervent evangelist for taking immediate action to clean up Iowa’s dirty water. In those capacities alone, he was one of the most effective, articulate leaders I’ve seen in this state. He can’t be replaced.

It’s true, the water works’ lawsuit ultimately failed. But the critical debate it sparked in Iowa lives on. The push to improve water quality in Iowa was once an issue on the fringes, a lopsided undercard bout between a few environmentalists and large agricultural interest groups. The lawsuit made water a main event at the Statehouse and elsewhere, due in no small part to Stowe’s ability to land punches.

“Iowans should be ashamed of surface water quality in this state,” Stowe told an Iowa CCI gathering in Iowa City in 2015, arguing that voluntary measures aren’t solving the problem.

“You and I can agree on fighting a fire. But we have to agree there is a fire,” Stowe said. “How do we come to the center there? I don’t know if we can.”


Our state’s leaders should be ashamed they’ve done so little to address the issues Stowe raised.

A much-ballyhooed water quality bill approved last year made for a nice photo-op, but will do too little to dent a multibillion dollar problem. The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund created by voters in 2010 sits empty. We hear of individual farmers embracing conservation and success stories of a cleaned up watershed here or there, but volunteerism hasn’t really moved the needle.

“We, as Iowans, are beginning to believe everything is on a 100-year time frame,” Stowe said at the 2017 Iowa Ideas conference. “That is unacceptable.”

And as long as we agree it’s unacceptable, and use our votes and our own clear voices, Stowe’s fight isn’t over.

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