In a post on this blog last November, we provided information on the lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works seeking damages from three upstream Iowa drainage authorities. In a response issued on Jan 27, the Iowa Supreme Court responded to four specific questions that needed to be answered for the lawsuit to proceed.
In this response, the Supreme Court found that drainage districts have a limited, targeted role to facilitate the drainage of farmland to make it more productive. For more than a century, Iowa law has immunized drainage districts from damage and injunctive relief claims, and that still holds in this case. The court also ruled that one subdivision of state government (the DMWW) cannot sue another (the drainage districts) under protections afforded by the Iowa Constitution, and that even if they could sue, an increased need to treat nitrates drawn from river water to meet drinking water standards would not amount to a constitutional violation. This means that the drainage districts of Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun Counties will not have to pay damages no matter the ruling in US District Court next June.
Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, says that the suit will continue, although he’s disappointed, but not surprised, by the Supreme Court response. Analysis by the Des Moines Register reports that this ruling may “take pressure off the state to do something about its flagging water quality”, according to environmentalists. The remaining law suit seeks to require drainage districts to obtain federal permits for their discharges under the Clean Water Act. The Register noted that Iowa had a record number of record number of beach advisories last year, a growing impaired waters list and many toxic blue-green algal blooms. They quote Ralph Rosenberg, director of the Iowa Environmental Council, saying, “The public can’t swim in their favorite lakes or fish in their favorite rivers,” he said. “The urgency, responsibility and accountability issues remain.
According to the Des Moines Register, both environmental and agriculture groups have pushed for the Iowa legislature to raise the state sales tax by 3/8 of 1 cent and dedicate that money to improving Iowa’s water quality and other natural resources. This approach has been successful in Minnesota, although as described here on this blog, a lot more is needed.
Update March 9, 2017: Bill to dissolve the Des Moines Water Works utility can also dissolve the lawsuit: read about it here.