WATER WOES: Struggle For Community Gardens

It was supposed to be easier this year.

The planting beds were in place, strawberries returning and neighborhood volunteers had the memories of last year’s bumper crop to fuel them.

“We got a lot of vegetables and produce out of it,” said Terry Mitchell, a resident of the King-Irving neighborhood on Des Moines’ near-north side.

“At one point we were harvesting 250 pounds of tomatoes daily,” said Ralph Chiodo, who runs the community garden as a part of his Forest Avenue Outreach program.

Around 3,000 pounds of fresh food and out of a forgotten site in the King-Irving Neighborhood that formerly produced little more than sore eyes.

“100% of the food from these gardens go to food pantries and neighborhood families—people who participate,” Chiodo said.

But the good vibe at this community garden and the others in Des Moines was knocked askew this week by a call from Des Moines Water Works regarding this year’s water rates.

“It’s gonna be more—significantly more,” Chiodo said. “They’re gonna charge $50 rental per month, plus the cost of our water, and then they want a $650 deposit on the box as well.”

The gardens—including the one Terry Mitchell coordinates at the corner of 19th and College—were suddenly in jeopardy.

“There’s just no way our neighborhood could come up with that down payment and $50 a month,” she said.

Businesses pay Water Works $50 per month and a $650 deposit to rent a meter box to draw water from nearby hydrants. Approached by two community gardens five years ago, Water Works loaned them the boxes at a steep discount. But last year, the number of gardens grew to more than a dozen and Water Works decided to charge full price in 2014.

“Out of a $52 million budget, it is not a significant fiscal impact to us—and I would not stand here and represent that it is,” said Water Works representative, Amy Kahler, “but it is not fair that Des Moines Water Works is making these choices on which organizations to support on the backs of our customers, of our rate-payers.”

Garden organizers plan to petition Water Works to reconsider, but also plan to appeal to private donors.

“We know there are a lot of supporters out there for gardens,” said Aubrey Martinez of the outreach group Eat Greater Des Moines, “and this is one of those times when there’s a specific need, there’s a specific ask and this is where people can really step up and help.”

Spring blooms eternal—especially in community gardens—but when the heat of summer rolls in, they could become desperate places once again.


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