Des Moines Water Case Delayed

Iowa Nutrient Runoff Trial Pushed to 2017

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Extensive subsurface tile drainage helped turn the Raccoon River watershed northwest of Des Moines, Iowa, into one of the most productive cropping and livestock areas in the country. (Map courtesy of USGS)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The Des Moines Water Works nutrient runoff lawsuit against 10 drainage districts in Iowa has been pushed back a year.

On Thursday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa in Sioux City set a new trial date for June 26, 2017.

The federal lawsuit was filed against drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, all of which are northwest of Des Moines, Iowa, and part of the Raccoon River watershed. The lawsuit also names county supervisors. It had been scheduled to go to trial starting Aug. 8, 2016.

In setting the new trial date, the court said in its order both parties will have until five days before the first trial date to reach a settlement -- or around June 21, 2017.

If successful, it is believed the legal action could lead to regulating agriculture as a pollution point source in Iowa and perhaps across the country if legal fever spreads. It could require farmers to pay for expensive permits for normal farm practices, as well as restrict the use of fertilizer or other farm chemicals.

At the center of the issue is the extensive subsurface tile drainage that helped turn the Raccoon River watershed northwest of Des Moines into one of the most productive cropping and livestock areas in the country. The tiling also allowed farm nutrients to move downstream. The lawsuit specifically declares tile drainage pipes and ditches operated by the drainage districts as "point sources which transport a high concentration of nitrates contained in groundwater."

The Raccoon River drains 3,625 square miles, which is equal to 2.3 million acres, in west-central Iowa.

The court will be addressing a motion by the drainage districts asking the judge to drop the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the drainage districts say Des Moines Water Works General Manager Bill Stowe and the defendants agree on a number of issues centered on the power of Iowa drainage districts to regulate nutrient runoff and that the utility has no direct proof that the nutrient runoff came from the 10 drainage districts in question.

During a deposition of Stowe taken as part of the ongoing case, he agreed with defense attorneys that Iowa drainage districts do not have the power to require farmers and others to have permits for discharging nutrients into waters, according to court documents, because such discharges are exempt from federal law.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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(CC/AG)

Todd Neeley