DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Deep inside a complex of huge tanks, drinking water for Iowa’s capital city is constantly cleansed of the harmful nitrates that come from the state’s famously rich farmland.
Without Des Moines Water Works, the region of 500,000 people that it serves wouldn’t have a thriving economy that has become a magnet for tech companies such as Microsoft. But after decades of ceaseless service, the utility is confronting an array of problems: Water mains are cracking open hundreds of times every year. Rivers that provide its water are more polluted than ever. And the city doesn’t know how it will afford a $150 million treatment plant at a time when revenues are down and maintenance costs are up?
“We’re reaching the end of the life cycle of some of the most critical assets we’ve got,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of the utility, which has a downtown treatment plant that was built in the 1940s, long before nitrates, which can harm infants, became a pressing concern. He said the industry is getting “all kinds of these warning alarms that we haven’t heard before.”
A similar crisis is unfolding in cities across the country. After decades of keeping water rates low and deferring maintenance, scores of drinking water systems built around the time of World War II and earlier are in need of replacement. The costs to rebuild will be staggering. The costs of inaction are already piling up. The challenge is deepened by drought conditions in some regions and government mandates to remove more contaminants.