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West Des Moines gives green light to regional water talks

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A regional utility proposed to govern the Des Moines metro area water supply got a third sign of approval Wednesday from West Des Moines.

The five directors of West Des Moines Water Works voted unanimously to enter serious negotiations with the Des Moines and Urbandale utilities to form Central Iowa Water Works, which could open early next year. .

Proponents of the regional utility say it would allow existing utilities to share water production risks and expansion costs as the metro continues to grow.

Trustees of Des Moines Water Works and the Urbanale Water Utility voted in favor of the plan in December and earlier this month, respectively. West Des Moines originally planned a vote in December, but delayed it amid fervent protests from a handful of residents, including two people formerly affiliated with West Des Moines Water Works.

“Once you’re signed, you’re bound to it,” former board chairman Brian Rickert said ahead of Wednesday’s vote. “You should never tie your hands behind your back when negotiating.”

Rickert and other opponents of the plan have said there may be better options for the city and they fear giving up authority over its water treatment facility.

Trustees described the resolution they approved as a non-binding signal of support to encourage other water utilities to join as well. West Des Moines and Urbandale are the two largest suburbs of Des Moines by population.

The resolution says the utilities agree to be the founding agencies of Central Iowa Water Works if they can reach an agreement “acceptable in form and substance.”

“This is just a first step,” said Scott Brennan, current president of West Des Moines Water Works. “If we can’t come up with a framework that will work for West Des Moines ratepayers, I certainly won’t support it.”

Des Moines Water Works is by far the largest supplier of drinking water to the metro, and about half of its production is destined for other cities. It supplies all of Urbandale’s water and approximately 30% of West Des Moines’ water.

West Des Moines produces the remaining 70% of its water, but the two cities have considered expansions that would likely cost more than $100 million each in coming years.

Graham Gillette, chairman of the Des Moines Trustees, said a regional authority would ensure equitable water production and share the risk of drought, environmental pollution and expensive projects.

“It is not right for a community to be burdened with potential hazards on the road,” he said last month.

Urbandale’s choice was trickier because an analysis commissioned by the utility showed that in the long term it would be cheaper to produce its own drinking water from the quarries it owns. This, however, would require a new treatment plant likely to cost at least $85 million and a 50% increase in water bills until the project debt is paid off.

West Des Moines administrators cited an analysis that showed a 30% savings for residents under the regional plan with Des Moines as the main reason to move forward.

“There’s no one on this board who doesn’t have the taxpayers’ best interest at heart,” said trustee Mary Thomsen. “If it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, we won’t do it.”

The utilities estimated that it would take at least six months to draft an agreement for the shared ownership and operation of their water production infrastructure. Each utility will retain ownership of its distribution system.