Central Iowa water utility plan gains momentum as West Des Moines looks to join long-envisioned regional group

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West Des Moines Water Works is looking to join a regional water utility rather than joining with other suburbs in a separate utility, with a planning committee saying the move could save consumers up to 30% over the next four decades.

The planning committee of the waters works’ board of trustees is recommending the full board vote in favor of joining Central Iowa Water Works.

Approval would represent a first step toward the long-envisioned formation of a Central Iowa Water Works, serving the Des Moines metro's biggest cities.

West Des Moines, Des Moines and Urbandale water officials have spent months negotiating how a regional water utility would work. The framework would enable other metro area cities, towns and rural water providers, such as Warren Water District and Xenia, to join.

The idea of creating a regional utility has sometimes been contentious. Water officials have worried about the costs, control over customer bills and whether the city of Des Moines would dominate the group.

Scott Brennan, chairman of the West Des Moines Water Works board, said that under current plans, the utility would retain its staff, continue to own and maintain its water distribution system and "control water pricing for our customers."

"The most notable change is that we will now have a meaningful voice in any and all decisions regarding source water, construction of new treatment plants and wholesale pricing,” Brennan said.

He said the committee considered other options, including building a western regional water treatment plant with Van Meter and Waukee and a broader west-metro regionalization plan that would take in additional suburbs.

Summer droughts repeatedly have dropped water levels at the Des Moines Water Works water intake on the Raccoon River, seen here in July 2020.
Summer droughts repeatedly have dropped water levels at the Des Moines Water Works water intake on the Raccoon River, seen here in July 2020.

West Des Moines, Waukee and Van Meter's collective water needs are expected to double in the next 25 years. The proposal for a utility serving them centered on construction of a water plant tapping the Raccoon River upstream from Des Moines Water Works.

The Raccoon River is a prime source of drinking water for Des Moines Water Works' 500,000 customers. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources approved West Des Moines' preliminary water use permit, despite Des Moines Water Works' concern that competition for the resource could make it more difficult and expensive to keep its customers' faucets running and toilets flushing, given increasingly frequent droughts.

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If the West Des Moines Water Works instead joins the Central Iowa Water Works, General Manager Christina Murphy said several additional measures would be needed before the regional utility could be created and funded.

That process is expected to take at least a year, with the regional utility becoming operational in 2023.

“We believe that shared governance and the projected cost-sharing advantages for our customers are essential to gaining board support for this new structure, which ensures that no one utility can control production and source water management decisions,” Murphy said in a statement.

Next step: Each member utility votes

Dale Acheson, general manager of the Urbandale Water Utility, said the next step is for each utility to vote on whether to sign a memorandum of understanding “that will say we are potentially in” if the parties all sign an agreement mirroring the conditions negotiated.

The Urbandale Water Utility trustees will review the negotiations in a Dec. 14 meeting.

Formation of a regional utility is still a long ways off, but “it’s certainly much closer than it’s ever been,” Acheson said.

Under the proposed framework, the participating utilities, communities and rural water districts would contribute money and water production and treatment assets to the new Central Iowa Water Works.

Some communities would buy into Central Iowa Water Works. Initial costs for each entity have yet to be finalized.

West Des Moines Water Works would contribute its AC Ward treatment plant and wells. Des Moines Water Works would do the same, along with some core distribution mains and shared pumping stations.

Central Iowa Water Works would own these assets within five years of ratification of the agreement.

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All participants would agree to buy their water from the new entity, West Des Moines Water Works said. The new utility would be led by an independent executive director not currently tied to the existing water utilities.

Each entity would have a board seat. Des Moines Water Works would have two because it represents a population of more than 100,000. But the composition of the board would prevent any one utility from having a majority on its own, West Des Moines Water Works said.

“In order for regionalization to work, each utility needed to have a seat at the table,” Brennan said. “You cannot ask these entities and their customers to give up things without getting something important in return."

Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan said in an email Monday that the utility is pleased West Des Moines Water Works is moving toward joining the regional utility. "We continue to believe the water resources in central Iowa can best be managed cooperatively and support the anticipated recommendation," Corrigan said.

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West Des Moines residents and businesses have an opportunity to get more information and comment on the proposal at three meetings.

West Des Moines Water Works and City Council will hold a joint workshop at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. West Des Moines Water Works will hold a special meeting on the issue at 4 p.m. Dec. 6 at 1505 Railroad Ave. And it will hold a public information meeting at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 14 in the council chambers at West Des Moines City Hall.

The West Des Moines Water Works trustees will vote on a resolution to negotiate an agreement to join Central Iowa Water Works at their regularly scheduled meeting at 4 p.m. Dec. 15.

West Des Moines Water Works produces up to 10 million gallons of water daily through its production facility and purchases the remainder, about 30% of its total supply, from Des Moines Water Works.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: West Des Moines Water Works may join long-envisioned regional utility

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