DES MOINES — A lawyer representing tens of thousands of people in a lawsuit over allegedly contaminated drinking water in West Virginia and Ohio and an expert on economics and the environment are scheduled to address an Iowa environmental coalition’s annual conference.
The Iowa Environmental Council’s annual conference, scheduled for Thursday on the Des Moines Area Community College campus in Ankeny, will explore opportunities to advance policies, programs and practices that offer ecological, economic and societal benefits, according to the council.
The Des Moines-based coalition has advocated for solutions to Iowa’s water quality issues.
The state has been ordered by the federal government to reduce the level of phosphorous pollutants in its waterways, which are contributing to deadly areas for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.
And a Des Moines water utility has sued water drainage districts in four northwest Iowa counties over agricultural pollutants, forcing the utility to spend millions of dollars to clean water for its customers, it says.
Among the keynote speakers at Thursday’s conference is Jon Erickson, a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.
Erickson said during an interview Wednesday that Iowa’s water quality situation is similar to his home state of Vermont, where the state this past month submitted to the federal government a plan to clean phosphorous pollution out of Lake Champlain, the sixth-largest lake in the country.
Water quality issues like Iowa’s and Vermont’s are playing out across the country, Erickson said.
“We’ve seen a dramatic decline in our state, really indeed across our whole country,” Erickson said. “This past summer over 20 states issued alerts for toxic green algae blooms. (With) the magnification of that coming with a warming planet, the projections are not good in terms of our failing water systems.”
Erickson, who according to the council has been published on a variety of environmental topics and has led international research and education programs, said he believes the desire for economic growth has created an economy that has outgrown the environment’s ability to sustain it.
He said water pollution is one signal of the stress economic growth is placing on the environment.
“I was trained as an economist, and for economics the holy grail has been economic growth, that we grow the economy and we only count the benefits of that growth and we kind of ignore the cost,” Erickson said. “So for my profession it really has become a wake-up call to say that the metrics that we use to track human progress are all wrong, the traditional metrics like gross domestic product, size of the economy.
“In a world that is seeing massive biodiversity loss, massive water system failures, massive signals to our climate through climate change, we’ve designed systems that say all growth is good. And we’ve got to really rethink the very basic premise of what economic success is.”
The conference’s other keynote speaker is Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati-based lawyer involved in a lawsuit against Dupont over allegedly polluted water in West Virginia and Ohio. Earlier this year a New York Times headline called Bilott “the lawyer who became Dupont’s worst nightmare.”
Bilott said his remarks at the conference will focus on how to use the legal system to create change in environmental and human health policies and programs, since funding for environmental programs often is in short supply and the scientific and regulatory process can be slow-moving.