Bill Stowe, who broke ground with his pioneering case against the impact of industrial agriculture on drinking water, died on Sunday, 14th April, 2019. An inspiring figure and tireless campaigner, we met Stowe in 2016 when he attended and spoke at our conference on the True Cost of American Food, which took place in San Francisco. Stowe gave a fascinating talk on the external costs and public health threats of nitrate pollution in water and he also participated in a session on nitrogen pollution, giving his unique perspective. We asked one of our contributors, Marianne Landzettel, who met and interviewed Stowe and wrote about him in a piece we published last October, to comment on his life and work.
Can anyone name the CEO of their local water provider? People in Des Moines, Iowa, certainly could. Bill Stowe, the head of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), made not just local news, but national and international headlines, too. I met Stowe in October of 2016 to ask him about the legal fight he’d picked with politicians and the state’s powerful agriculture lobby on behalf of the roughly 500,000 citizens of Des Moines whom the DMWW provides with drinking water.
Stowe was an impressive figure. Tall, soft spoken, with a mane of long white hair, the trained engineer and lawyer calmly explained the issue: Iowa’s economy is driven by industrial agriculture, the production of corn, soy, pork, poultry and eggs and that has led to high nitrate concentrations in rivers and waterways. “We are a surface water provider,” said Stowe, “the quality of the water is driven by land use.”
The Water Works have to process water from the Racoon River, which Stowe called “an open sewer”, into drinkable water. Nitrate is damaging to human health, in particular to infants. Water providers are required by law to reduce the nitrate level to below the permissible threshold. The DMWW already have the world’s largest de-nitrification unit, but the nitrate load in the Racoon River had reached a level where even that unit wasn’t big enough. A new one would cost about $100 million and drive up water costs for Des Moines’ citizens, most of whom can’t afford it: Stowe explained that three quarters of all students in the inner city are eligible for subsidized meals – which means their families are poor.
Iowa’s agriculture needed to clean up its act, he decided, and convinced the DMWW board to sue two water districts for lack of oversight rather than invest in a new unit. “I did not come into the job to litigate the most powerful bodies in the state. But the alternative is so bad we have to fight this through,” said Stowe.
The fight got ugly fast. “The Des Moines Water Works have declared war on Iowa”, said then state Governor, Terry Branstad, before the suit was even filed. Lobby groups for industrial agriculture lawyered up and set aside huge sums of money for a media campaign and fighting the DMWW every step of the way. In an attempt to get rid of Stowe, Iowa lawmakers even introduced a bill to dismantle the DMWW. Bill Stowe went quiet when I asked him about the emotional toll the lawsuit had taken, it was having an effect on him and on his family, was all he was prepared to say.
In 2017, a Federal Court dismissed the DMWW lawsuit without considering the arguments. By then Bill Stowe had become a local hero – for the citizens of Des Moines and for environmental groups across the US.
In March of this year, two environmental groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food and Water Watch, picked up where Stowe had to leave off and filed a new lawsuit. They hope to force the state of Iowa to clean up the Raccoon River watershed. Their main argument: citizens suffer injury by paying the costs incurred by Des Moines Water Works to treat the water.
Bill Stowe will not be there to see the outcome of the case. In March, he announced that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. He continued working until 2nd April, and died in a hospice on Sunday, 14th April, reports the Des Moines Register. “We’re all lucky to have been able to know him” is the headline of the obituary in the Register. I couldn’t agree more.
Photograph: Marianne Landzettel
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