An employee conducts water quality testing at Des Moines Water Works, which is involved in a proposal to create a regional water system and expand capacity to support economic development and the region’s growing workforce. Photo by Des Moines Water Works

The work to create a regional water agency is continuing as agencies involved in the process collect and sort through comments from regional partners before a revised proposed sharing agreement is drafted.

“We’re still waiting to get feedback from a couple of communities, and then our hope is that we can kind of assimilate all of the feedback that we’ve received into a next draft of the agreement and present something that is much closer to finished,” said Ted Corrigan, CEO of Des Moines Water Works.

The Des Moines Water Works board of trustees voted in December to begin talks about the proposed creation of a regional drinking water system. The West Des Moines Water Works board and the Urbandale Water Utility, the other board-run water utilities in the region, voted in January to begin talks.

The votes followed years of discussion that began around 2016. Those talks eventually led to a more focused conversation about regionalization in 2019, but those meetings were put on hold with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Talks resumed in mid-2020 to see if there was a path forward.

report was issued in November of last year that indicated consensus was reached on issues around regionalization and outlined what a regionalized utility would look like and how it would be governed. Each participating community would be given one representative on the board, with those over 100,000 population (Des Moines) having two. All Central Iowa water utility systems would be invited to participate.

The regional entity would buy water from other water utilities in the region and then sell it back to member communities at wholesale rates. It would determine water rates and treatment, as well as any expansion that would be needed to the system.

A draft sharing agreement was released in February and submitted to 13 communities and water systems in Central Iowa. Since then, the primary utilities behind the effort  Des Moines, West Des Moines and Urbandale  have been collecting input and comments, addressing concerns and requests, and hoping to distribute a revised agreement by early next month.

That deadline will be missed, and the hope now is to have a new draft agreement ready before the end of this year.

Based on comments so far, Corrigan said there would be changes made to the initial agreement. He didn’t detail the nature of the comments.

“This is a complicated agreement,” he said. “We have 13 partners and we tried to write it from the perspective of all 13 and what would work for everyone, but that’s hard to do. We’ve gotten good feedback on subtle changes in language or wording that would make it work, or ensure that it works for all the different perspectives and types of organizations that are coming into this agreement.”

Corrigan said there aren’t specific issues that need to be overcome.

“It’s more a case of making sure we get it right from a structural perspective and future funding, what is the structure of the organization, what is the funding mechanism the organization will use. Those are some of the biggest challenges because this isn’t something that’s been done in Iowa before that I'm aware of.”

He said only one of the 13 organizations, Warren Rural Water, has indicated it will not participate in regionalization.

Corrigan said he and others have been making public presentations on the plan to various community boards and councils, service organizations, neighborhood associations and business groups.

Once a second draft is written, there will be ample opportunity for additional public input, he said.

The hope is to have a new regional board seated by the middle of 2023, and the implementation of the plan through the end of 2023.

Happening simultaneously is the development of an operating agreement between the agencies that produce water to contract with the regional board for the operation of their current facilities.

A draft of that agreement has been shared and comments are being collected. It’s being reviewed by attorneys and is not ready to be shared publicly, Corrigan said.

The groups are also looking at expanding the Des Moines Water Works’ Saylorville treatment plant from a capacity of 10 million gallons a day to 20 million gallons a day.

Corrigan said each of the groups considering regionalization has been sent a letter saying plans for expansion should move forward even before a regional board is seated.

Communities could pay cash or borrow on their own to finance the expansion. The regional entity could also use State Revolving Loan Funds to finance it with members paying annually in their rates, Corrigan said.

A request for proposals is expected to be sent to engineering firms to design the expansion by the end of the year.

The estimated cost of expansion is $159 million, with completion in 2025, but that could be delayed by supply chain issues and increased material costs, Corrigan said.

It would be the first of what Corrigan said would be a series of expansions over the next 20 years because of the projected growth of the region.

Officials with the city of Altoona said no decision on regionalization has been made and that the City Council was waiting for an analysis from a third-party financial adviser before making a decision. They said that information could be available by mid-September.

Marketa Oliver, city administrator for Bondurant, said the city was considering all its options.

Bondurant used to produce its own water, but stopped in 2001 and became a wholesale customer of Des Moines Water Works. Marketa said in consulting with long-term staff it was believed the switch was made as a cost-saving measure.

Oliver said Bondurant has requested additional information but has not yet received information needed to make a decision.

“There just hasn’t been enough time to amass all the information needed and answers to questions our engineer has posed,” she said, acknowledging the complexity of the process and the hard work being done by leaders behind the scenes. “The city will be able to provide a definitive answer about Bondurant’s future path after specific details regarding [regionalization] have been developed.”

Christina Murphy, general manager of West Des Moines Water Works, said the three board-governed utilities are “hashing out" the issues that have been brought up by other partners.

“I don’t think there are any deal-breaker comments,” she said. “There has been a lot of good feedback. We all want it to be a good working agreement. There's a couple of things that are probably going to take a little more time to work through.”

Murphy described the process as a “huge undertaking” but said, “I think it’s made a lot of great progress and it continues to make a lot of great progress.

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that people aren’t seeing, but there’s a lot of effort going into making sure that it's written correctly,” she said.

Murphy said regionalization and expansion is critical to economic development in Central Iowa.

“We only have so much available drinking water and water to treat here in the metro, and it’s really important that we work together to use that resource to its maximum ability,” Murphy said. “We know that the region is growing at a rapid pace and we need additional water, and it’s really important to have that water available to support economic development and our growing workforce.”

Murphy said it’s not just thinking about water needs for the next year or two.

“It takes five-plus years sometimes to get these large plant expansions online and capacity online, so you have to be thinking ahead, not just what I need today or next year, but what will I need five years from now,” she said. “That’s where I think this regional effort will allow more communities to be involved in their planning for their water needs in the future.”