The year 1932 found the country well into a major depression. Due to loss of jobs, many people in Des Moines were unable to pay their water bills. Furnishing free water on a discriminatory basis was forbidden by state law, and funds of the Board of Water Works Trustees could not be used as a means of unemployment relief. Therefore, when a water bill was not paid, the water had to be cut off. The mayor, the city health department and others urged the Board to establish a policy of leniency in reference to discontinuing water service in certain cases where the consumer was unable to pay.
A plan was developed whereby consumers were permitted to “work out” their water bills.
The weekly payroll vouchers of the Des Moines Water Works during the years of 1932-1935 showed long lists of names, with earnings listed as $3.20. Sometimes more than 100 names appeared with this amount, indicating a day’s work at 40 cents an hour for each person.This rate was not unreasonable, in view of the fact that the highest hourly rate paid to any regular Water Works employee was 85 cents an hour, for a 48-hour week.
At that time, a minimum water bill was $1.00 per quarter; the normal family bill was $2.25 per quarter.
In a Des Moines Register article, dated November 26, 1933, under a headline of “Projects in Des Moines Enable 4,500 to Pay Water Bills” were pictures of a rustic bridge, a roadway with new guard rails, and a stone bridge. A story of Water Works’ program resembling the Civil Works Administration plan followed. Consumers also helped lay water mains, inspect hydrants, and plant trees and shrubs in the “water works preserve” (now known as Water Works Park).
Economic conditions improved in 1935, and by September the list was very short, and finally “working out the water bill” was no longer necessary.