The lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Waterworks against the drainage districts in three Northwest Iowa Counties has been followed extensively in the press. The case which deals with the issue of how to deal with the levels of nitrates in the State’s drinking water was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. The Federal District Court Judge certified four questions to the Iowa Supreme Court in order to clarify issues of Iowa law raised in the lawsuit. The Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling finding that Iowa law has immunized drainage districts from damage claims. The Court also found the drainage districts are immune from claims for injunctive relief. The Supreme Court held the Plaintiff cannot assert protections afforded by the Iowa Constitution’s inalienable rights, due process, equal protection, and takings clauses. On January 27, 2017, the District Court issued its ruling finding that a drainage district is not susceptible for a suit for money damages. The Court also noted that drainage districts have no statutory authority to regulate farmer nitrate use or mandate changes in farming practices. Finally, the Court rejected the claims that the drainage districts had unconstitutionally taken property without just compensation.
On March 18, 2017, the United States District Court issued another ruling dismissing the entire lawsuit.
The dismissal of the lawsuit will bring increased attention to the matter by the Iowa Legislature. Legislation is currently pending which would address funding for water projects. More than 340 million dollars in Federal and State funds were directed to Iowa water quality programs in 2016. Another area to improve water quality has been for farmers to take voluntary steps, such as the planting of cover crops or the installation of bio reactors to reduce the flow of nitrates into the water system. Given the budget constraints of the Legislature this year, it is unlikely that any major legislation will be passed dealing with water quality issues.
– By James D. Beatty