Farmers Defend Iowa Drainage Districts

Soy Group Pledges $150,000 to Defend Drainage Districts Sued by DMWW

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The Raccoon River drains 3,625 square miles, which is equal to 2.3 million acres, in west-central Iowa. (Graphic courtesy of USGS)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The Iowa Soybean Association Board of Directors on Wednesday said it will contribute $150,000 to help defend 10 Iowa drainage districts sued by Des Moines Water Works for nutrient pollution. The money will go to Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties.

DMWW filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa in Sioux City, with a trial date set for June 26, 2017.

All of the counties are northwest of Des Moines, Iowa, and are part of the Raccoon River watershed. 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 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."

Nonpoint source discharges, including ag drainage tile, have been exempt for decades from regulations under the Clean Water Act.

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

In a news release Wednesday, the Iowa Soybean Association called the lawsuit a "must-win case" for the drainage districts.

The ISA Board approved the expenditure of non-checkoff dollars to the Sac County legal defense fund, to aid all of the defendants in the case.

ISA President Wayne Fredericks said in a news release the lawsuit is important to farmers across the state.

"It's a case the counties and its residents can't lose," he said. "As the lawsuit has progressed, it becomes more clear to Iowa soybean farmers the need to show strong support for the counties. We don't want to look back and say we could have done more."

ISA Chief Executive Officer Kirk Leeds said in the news release the lawsuit was an "unfortunate distraction from the cooperative, proactive approach the association and farmers believe is the best way to improve water quality."

Leeds said the group is hopeful the funds will bring the lawsuit to a quick end.

"For all of these reasons, ISA has once again stepped up to defend Iowa agriculture and farmers," Leeds said. "At the end of the day, it's who we are -- an organization of family farmers who rally around neighbors in need as Iowans often do."

In all, the ISA has now provided $215,000 to the defense, after approving $65,000 earlier this spring.

Dean Stock, chairperson of the Sac County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement the counties appreciate the support.

"On behalf of our local drainage districts and the farmers in those districts, I want to express our deepest appreciation to the Iowa Soybean Association and all its members for standing with us as we defend our local economy, and farmers across the nation, from an attack on our ability to make our land productive," Stock said.

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Todd Neeley