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Drainage districts immune from lawsuit

By Staff | Feb 4, 2017

DES MOINES – On Friday the Iowa Supreme Court handed down its opinion that Iowa drainage districts, branches of state government, are protected from lawsuits, especially those filed by another branch of state government, in this case the Des Moines Water Works.

Bill Northey, Iowa agriculture secretary called the lawsuit “a needless distraction.”

Kurt Hora, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, called the court’s opinion “good news for farmers.”

Chris Hensley, an Iowa Partnership for Clean Water board member, called the suit “divisive and has done nothing to improve water quality.”

Two years and two weeks earlier, the Des Moines Water Works filed suit against 10 drainage districts in the counties of Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun, seeking monetary damages for what it termed as excessive nitrates in the Raccoon River, which Des Moines uses for its drinking water.

DMWW said the organization was experiencing high-costs in removing the nitrates, blaming the high levels on ag drainage tiles as water leaches from farm fields.

After 106 weeks of organizations debating the likelihood of the suit being upheld, the Iowa Supreme Court said in its opinion it has held drainage districts blameless from lawsuits for more than a century because they have a limited purpose and considers this is still good law.

The water works’ legal team implored the justices to revisit the immunity law, saying immunity should not apply in a water pollution case in light of the evolution in the understanding of environmental contamination.

But Justice Tom Waterman said the court would stand by its former decisions, saying the districts are immune from lawsuits because they exist for one purpose: to make Iowa land more productive through drainage. Having established themselves, they are then obligated by state constitution to maintain the drainage structures.

Not Iowa’s way

Speaking for the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Hora, who farms in Washington County, said “Iowa’s rural communities and farm families are used to rallying together to face tough challenges. Lawsuits and finger pointing are not the way we as Iowans come together.”

“We as farmers, want the safest, best quality water for Iowa,” Hora added. “The ICGA and our farmer-members will continue to use cooperation and collaboration in proactively solving our water quality issues.”

Hora acknowledged that this is not necessarily the end of the lawsuit, but is a step in the right direction as it concerns farmers.

“The legal issues in this lawsuit could restrict our ability to farm, both practically and economically,” Hora said. “A favorable outcome in the lawsuit will allow us to continue to try new ways of improving soil and water conservation.”

This opinion goes back to the federal court to make a ruling on the remaining 10 counts brought on by the Des Moines Water Works.

Hora said ICGA will continue to invest and support both public and private partnerships to accelerate the adoption of water quality practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy as developed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Iowa State University.

Significant loss

Northey said the Jan. 27 opinion marked “a significant loss for Des Moines Water Works. Their failed strategy seeks to circumvent well-established Iowa law with more than 100 years of precedent.”

“Unfortunately, it has already cost DMWW ratepayers more than $1 million dollars on lawyer fees that could be better spent improving their infrastructure and serving their customers,” he said.

“While Iowans have continued to take on the challenge of improving water quality and investing in additional conservation practices, the lawsuit has been a needless distraction from our collaborative, research-based approach that is working with Iowans in rural and urban areas across the state to improve water quality.”

Law is clear

IPCW’s Hensley said he supports the ISC’s opinion to dismiss a number of counts in the DMWW’s lawsuit against the drainage districts.

“The lawsuit brought forth by the DMWW is divisive and has done nothing to improve water quality,” Hensley said. “IPCW released a white paper that concludes increased demand due to population growth – not changing nitrate levels – in the metropolitan area is the primary factor contributing to the need for expansion of DMWW facilities.”

“IPCW believes that collaboration, as Iowa farmers have and continue to do around the state, is key to improving water quality and encourages DMWW to follow suit.”

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