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Des Moines Water Company

In 1871, Frederic Hubbell and his law partner, Jefferson S. Polk, organized the Des Moines Water Company.  B. F. Allen, a prosperous Des Moines banker helped put up the $250,000 needed and became the company’s first president.  Allen had built Terrace Hill in 1867.  In 1873, Allen purchased a bank in Chicago and moved there, but he couldn’t save the bank and went bankrupt.  Hubbell and Polk bought most of Allen’s assets with Hubbell buying Terrace Hill (which remained in the Hubbell family until it was given to the state in 1971).  Augustus Denman became the general manager.  His son, Charles Denman, worked as a cashier for several years and then took over as General Manager in 1896.

The Water Company was governed by a Board of five directors, elected annually by stockholders.  The Board appointed a president, secretary, and one member to run the company.  They were given exclusive rights to construct and operate the Water Works for 40 years.

The first site of the Water Company was on Walnut Street between Lyon and Farnham.

A system known as the Holly Water Works was adopted.  Holly System hydrants were capable of throwing six streams at once.  The City said they must have 10 miles of pipe laid within 10 months.  The hydrants were placed so “water can be drawn by citizens or passersby for purposes of drinking for persons or animals.”  Within a year, there were 10.32 miles of pipe and 10 hydrants.  Pumps could discharge about 2 million gallons per day (mgd).  From June 1872 through June 1873, it cost $5,770 to operate the Water Works.  No city taxes were levied for water use.

Water came from a filtering tank that was sunk in the sand and gravel on the south side of the Raccoon River.  It was made of boiler iron – 12 feet in diameter and 14 feet high.  It was open at the bottom, closed at the top, and was near the water’s edge.  The sides were perforated in numerous places to let water in.  In 1883, consulting engineers started planning a gallery system that would use groundwater along the river, the first of its kind in the U.S.  In 1884, the first 250 feet of the gallery was constructed out of wood and 500 additional feet were added in 1885.  The iron filters were then disconnected because they always got full of sand and gravel.  More gallery was constructed almost every year, and a small dam made of stone and brush on the Raccoon River was installed to increase the water level near the vicinity of the gallery (it had to be rebuilt many times).  Construction of a new gallery began in 1902 but was delayed until 1904 because of terrible flooding.  By 1910, concrete rings replaced wood in the gallery construction.  The concrete rings were 5 feet in diameter and 2 feet long and held slightly apart so water could trickle in. 

Des Moines Water Works Company

In 1880, the name was changed to Des Moines Water Works Company.

In 1891, the first water tower was constructed on 17th Street, between Center and Crocker.  Made of steel with a lacy ironwork railing and spiral stairway, it held 530,000 gallons of water.  It wasn’t used after the Hazen Tower was put into use in 1931, and was torn down in 1939.

A flood in June of 1903 was said to be the worst in history.  Trains were halted.  Property damage was estimated at $500,000.  Business was totally suspended, hundreds became unemployed, and churches and schools opened up to take care of the homeless.

In 1910, construction of ponds in the park began to augment the water supply.  In 1918, a permanent pumping station was built on the park grounds to pump water from the river into these ponds.

In the years of being privately owned, there were constant complaints by the City Council and newspapers.  The City would repeatedly try to buy the Water Works, but either could not raise the money or could not get the votes needed.  In 1897, the newspaper and City Council launched a vigorous attack on water quality so they could get the company’s asking price down.  In 1898, the City said they would purchase the company, but the people voted it down.  In 1911, the vote finally passed, but Denman wouldn’t sell because the City was offering too little.  Denman wrote a letter to the newspaper explaining to the people why he couldn’t accept the City’s offer and how the City hadn’t paid its water bills for several years.  Finally in 1913, a price agreement was reached.  The vote to purchase in 1914 was favorable, but the vote to issue bonds didn’t pass.  It was defeated again the next month, but passed in November.  The City wanted to hold off until the bond market improved, and then was unable to sell enough bonds, so sued for an extension of time.  Finally in 1919, the City purchased the water company.  Charles Denman, who had been running Des Moines Water Works Company since 1896, was appointed General Manager with a salary of $8,000.  The company’s name was changed to Des Moines Water Works.

Construction of a new pumping station at its present site began in 1920.  A wooden structure was quickly constructed and then a brick structure was built around it.  When it was completed, the wooden interior was dismantled.

In the early 1900s, there was concern about the number of typhoid deaths.  Many of the deceased were people who still had private wells.  The City passed an ordinance fixing standards of purity for water in 1911, and Des Moines Water Company started adding hypochlorite in 1912.  In 1912, a laboratory was started with a chemist, a bacteriologist, and an assistant.  In 1917, a study was conducted by an outside source on river conditions of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers.  The main pollution of the Raccoon was said to come from nearby privies, sewage from upstream residents, septic tanks, and a car shop in Valley Junction.

Des Moines Water Works

In 1919, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) was formed as a public utility under a new Code of Iowa, Section 388.  Under this Code, the water utility is operated by a Board of Trustees, who are appointed by the Mayor of the City of Des Moines and approved by the City Council.  The Board of Trustees has all of the powers of the City Council to operate the utility except for levying taxes.  The utility is owned by the water rate payers.  The Board of Trustees hires a General Manager to operate the utility.  The General Manager produces an annual budget for the operations of the utility using revenue from the sale of water as the primary income source.  This budget is reviewed, modified, and approved by the Board of Trustees.  The Board of Trustees is the only body of the utility which can enter into contracts, and the utility must comply with State of Iowa public improvement bidding laws.

  • In 1923, an attorney prepared a bill for the legislature to remove the DMWW Board from supervision by the City Council.  It became law that spring that the Mayor appoints Board members as vacancies occur and the City Council has to approve the appointments.  Management of DMWW is the responsibility of the Board.
  • In 1928, Denman recommended adding a softening plant to save customers money spent on soap and wear and tear on clothes.  Arguments for and against it continued into the late 1930s with the Board voting to delay building until 1938 (didn’t want to raise rates).  It was further delayed because of the war.
  • In 1929, construction of the Hazen water tower on Hickman began.  Constructed of concrete and steel, it is 110 feet high, holds 2 million gallons of water and weighs 20,000 tons. 
  • In 1931, scientists started realizing the benefit fluoride plays in preventing tooth decay.  This opened a new field of nationwide study and controversy that continued for three decades.

The Great Depression

In 1933, during the Depression, Denman provided work to many men who could not pay their water bills.  Men often worked several days.  This practice continued until 1935 (about 4,500 men did this).  Many worked to lay water mains, grade park roads, inspect hydrants, and beautify the park.  Seven thousand plantings of trees and shrubs were made yearly from seedlings grown in the greenhouse under the care of Arie den Boer (he joined DMWW in 1928), who also introduced several hundred varieties of crabapple trees and won many awards for his work in horticulture.  In 1961, the crabapple orchard was named the Arie den Boer Arboretum (Den Boer retired that year). 

  • In 1942, DMWW paid $400,000 for 650 acres of farmland southwest of Des Moines to build a reservoir to use during emergencies.  It took a year to complete, and was opened for fishing in 1948.  It was named the Dale Maffitt Reservoir in 1955. 
  • In 1945, another flood occurred and in 1947 a record-breaking flood occurred. 
  • In 1948, the softening plant was finally built (completed in 1949).  It was called the filter building and also housed the laboratory.  In 1958, eight more filters and two more softening basins were added.
  • In 1948, the first water rate increase in 50 years occurred.
  • In 1950, levees were built around the Fleur Drive treatment plant, which have been added to since the 1993 Flood and are presently at 31 feet high.
  • From 1951-1959, many local news articles were published about the pros and cons of adding fluoride to the water.  In 1958, the US Attorney General ruled that fluoride was legal; and in 1959, DMWW started fluoridating its water at the request of the City Council. 
  • In 1955, the Nollen Standpipe at 26th and Hull and the Wilchinski Standpipe at SE 9th and Pleasant View Drive were built.  Land for a north standpipe was also purchased in 1955, but construction on the standpipe did not begin until 1959.  In 1973, this standpipe, near Sears at Merle Hay Mall, was named Tenny.
  • In 1957, Iowa Light and Power installed a substation at Water Works.  Electric motors began to be used.  Electric high- and low-lift pumps were purchased (this brought the end of steam power).
  • In 1957, it was decided a dam would be constructed at Saylorville, but groundbreaking didn’t take place until 1965.
  • In 1972, water meter reading equipment was installed on the outside of homes.
  • In 1985, an office building was built along Valley Drive (now known as George Flagg Parkway). 
  • In 1992, the nitrate removal facility (eight tanks) was built.

Flood of 1993

In 1993, there was a record flood.  The Raccoon River crested at 26.7, 14.7 feet above flood stage.  The Fleur Drive Treatment Plant was shut down and Des Moines residents were without water service for 11 days and non-potable water for 18 days.

  • In 1994, the offices were remodeled after the flood. 
  • In 1998, groundbreaking for the Maffitt Treatment Plant occurred.
  • In May of 2000, the Water Treatment Plant at Maffitt Lake, a 25 mgd facility, began operation using five radial collector wells for its main water source, but also drawing from Maffitt Reservoir for additional water resources.  In 2007, the Board of Water Works Trustees renamed the Maffitt Treatment Plant to the L.D. McMullen Water Treatment Plant.
  • In August 2003, a monthly record for pumpage was set – 2,262.82 million gallons. 
  • On June 6, 2006, groundbreaking occurred for the Saylorville Water Treatment Plant, DMWW’s third treatment plant located in the 6500 block of NW 26th Street in Polk County. The treatment plant utilizes membrane technology to soften and purify the finished water.  This is DMWW’s first membrane treatment plant and the largest such facility in Iowa.  The plant has a capacity of 10 mgd and will be expandable to 20 mgd. 
  • On June 7, 2006, a daily pumpage record of 90.19 mg was set.

Best City for Clean Drinking Water

In April 2008, Forbes.com named Des Moines the Best City for Clean Drinking Water.

  • In June 2008, another flood occurred.  The Raccoon River crested at 24.5 feet at the Fleur Drive Treatment Plant, 12.5 feet above flood stage and 2.2 feet below the Flood of 1993 record.  Due to extensive levee work and flood preparation, DMWW conducted normal treatment operations throughout the flood.
  • In April 2011, the official start-up of the Saylorville Water Treatment Plant occurred.
  • On July 24, 2012, a new record for daily pumpage was set – 96.64 million gallons. 
  • In July 2012, a new monthly record for pumpage was set – 2,544.12 million gallons. 


    Des Moines Water Works CEO & General Managers

    Name Dates
    Benjamin Allen, President 1871-1873
    Augustus Denman, President 1873-1896
    Charles Denman 1896-1933
    Dale Maffitt 1933-1955
    Morris Tenny 1955-1968
    Maurice King 1968-1977
    Dean Johnson 1977-1985
    L. D. McMullen 1985-2007
    Randall R. Beavers 2008-2012
    William G. Stowe 2012-present

    DSM H20

    DSMH20 - DMWW Blog

    For the latest news in water quality, customer service and other water-related hot topics, visit DMWW's blog.

    Project H20

    Project H20

    Learn about DMWW's voluntary program to assist low-income households in the Des Moines metro.