Iowa Nutrients Case Dismissed

Judge Rules Water Quality in Iowa Legislature's Hands

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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A federal court dismissed Des Moines Water Works' lawsuit Friday. (Courtesy graphic)

OMAHA (DTN) -- A federal court late Friday dismissed a nutrients runoff lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works against Iowa drainage districts in the Raccoon River watershed, according to a court order.

"The motions are fully submitted and ready for decision," an order from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa said.

"For the reasons set forth herein, the defendants' motions will be granted and this case will be dismissed in its entirety."

In March 2015, the Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees filed a federal lawsuit against the Sac County Board of Supervisors, Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors and Calhoun County Board of Supervisors, in their capacities as trustees of 10 drainage districts.

The complaint alleged the drainage districts were point-source polluters as defined by the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit sought damages against the districts for nitrates runoff polluting sources of drinking water.

In his ruling late Friday, Judge Leonard Strand dismissed all of DMWW's claims. The judge said the Iowa General Assembly is the appropriate body to address the state's water quality issues and not the court.

"We are disappointed in the ruling and the court's unwillingness to recognize the profound water-quality impacts that pollution from drainage districts has on Iowa waterways," said Bill Stowe, chief executive officer and general manager of Des Moines Water Works.

"Perhaps the state legislature should now spend its time addressing meaningful, long-term, sustainably-funded policy solutions to our serious water problems instead of meddling in affairs best left to local communities."

The court ruled drainage districts lack the authority to redress DMWW's claims, meaning the utility has no standing to sue drainage districts.

The ruling, however, does not address whether agricultural drainage tile is a pollution point source in the Clean Water Act. DMWW said in its statement the utility's board of trustees will review its options.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said the court's ruling is an important step in the state addressing water quality issues.

"The dismissal of this lawsuit is very welcome news and takes away an unnecessary distraction from the collaborative efforts underway to improve water quality in Iowa," he said in a statement to DTN.

"Iowa farmers, landowners, cities, businesses, homeowners and many other partners are taking on the challenge of improving water quality and we are seeing exciting results. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I truly believe that by working together, we can make big strides."

Northey said that since the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy was released in 2012, "we have worked hard to reach out to farmers and all Iowans to encourage them to try one new thing to address water quality. We remain committed to building on the momentum that has been established and continuing to advance our collaborative, research based approach to address this important issue."

Stowe said DMWW will continue to take water quality seriously "and the outcome of the lawsuit will not change that."

"While many in the agriculture community took issue with the lawsuit, nobody objected to the facts that we presented in the case. Those facts still remain, and we must address them in a deliberate and meaningful way," Stowe said.

In its lawsuit, DMWW made a number of claims, including that the drainage districts violated the utility's constitutional rights by unjustly taking property without compensation by not controlling runoff.

Another claim was the drainage districts violated DMWW's due process rights for providing no adequate remedy for alleged pollution of the Raccoon River.

The court dismissed all the claims outright.

"By virtue of its answers to this court's certified questions, the Iowa Supreme Court established that counts III through IX have no merit under Iowa law," the court ruled.

"This leaves for this court's consideration only DMWW's various contentions that Iowa law violates its rights under the United States Constitution. Having found those contentions to be entirely devoid of merit, I will grant the defendants' motion for summary judgment as to all of these counts."

The court also ruled the drainage districts' power is limited to restoring, maintaining or increasing the flow of water through their drainage systems, and not to require nutrients reduction strategies to reduce runoff.

In January, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled DMWW could not seek monetary damages against the drainage districts.

It was believed the legal action could have led to regulating farm ground as a pollution point source in Iowa and perhaps across the country if legal fever spreads.

At the center of the lawsuit was the extensive subsurface tile drainage that helped turn the Raccoon River watershed into one of the most productive cropping and livestock areas in the country.

The tiling also allowed farm nutrients to move downstream. The lawsuit argued tile drainage pipes and ditches operated by the drainage districts are pollution point sources subject to the Clean Water Act permitting process.

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Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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