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The Elbert Files: Water


Water is one of those commodities, like dirt, that we Iowans have always had, but until relatively recently, we rarely questioned.

We treat it like air and expect every tap to provide clean water, in part because we know there is a huge industry dedicated to making it safe. Or so we hope.

There are times, like the flood of 1993, when we realize how precious clean water really is.

For Des Moines residents, the flood 29 years ago was a unifying experience. Like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most of us remember where we were when we learned Des Moines had lost its ability to produce clean water.

I’ll never forget the Sunday morning radio and TV broadcasts telling us that the city’s waterworks had been flooded and that we should fill our sinks and bathtubs with the limited amount of clean water that remained in the city’s pipes, because once they were empty no one knew how long it would take to fix the city’s contaminated water treatment plant.  

The following day, military helicopters deposited huge water bladders left over from the first Gulf War at strategic locations around Des Moines.

Every day for the next week, I made regular trips to our neighborhood water bladder outside Greenwood Elementary School to haul away clean water in gallon jugs, ice chests and other repurposed containers, which I deposited in our bathtub for use in bathing, cleaning and flushing.

That was probably the first time people my age thought seriously about water.

But if you look on the internet, you’ll see the history of water purification goes back thousands of years. Ancient Greeks were the first to write about it 4,000 years ago. A thousand or so years later, humans also were moving large volumes of water over long distances for irrigation and drinking.  

The Romans built hundreds of miles of water-moving aqueducts, much of it underground. But as time passed, those early systems fell into disrepair and water-borne illnesses, including cholera and typhoid, increased and spread.

During the 1800s science made a link between cholera and contaminated water, resulting in the creation and use of water filtering and treatment systems in North America and Europe.

Before then, there had been a long period of human history when beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages were considered safer to drink than water, even for children.

After the Civil War, communities created water boards or commissions to oversee the distribution and safety of municipal water supplies.

Des Moines’ original waterworks was created in 1871 by F.M. Hubbell and other pioneer business leaders. It initially served 60 customers and was located “on Walnut and Sixteenth streets, where water was piped from the Raccoon River, traveled through a filtration tank, and was then pumped out into the system,” wrote Simpson College history professor William Friedricks in his 2007 biography of Hubbell.

Today, Des Moines’ much expanded water system is moving toward a merger with suburban providers in an effort to obtain the increasingly expensive resources needed to treat water that contains agricultural and industrial chemicals.

While there is growing concern at the local level about modern chemicals found in Iowa water supplies, Iowa lawmakers have mostly turned a blind eye to the problem.

Efforts to provide adequate statewide funding to address problems have repeatedly failed, with the Iowa General Assembly again this year declining to activate a sales tax increase that was approved by voters more than a decade ago as a funding source for water issues.

Meanwhile, suggestions that Iowa expand its two-crop (corn and soybeans) practices to include more environmentally healthy alternatives are met with blank stares from key farm leaders in academia and industry.

Once again this summer, “No swimming” signs will be posted at a growing number of public beaches where recreational waters are contaminated with farm chemical runoff and industry-produced “forever chemicals” continue to poison drinking water supplies.

The problem we rarely considered until recently is growing faster than most of us realize.

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