Judge Dismisses Controversial Iowa Nitrate Lawsuit

Mar 24, 2017  | 3 min  | Ep4231

Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas are off to an above average start in their 2017 corn planting.

Much of the Corn Belt is without snow as the ground temperatures have risen and the tile lines are beginning to run again ahead of field work.

Farmers and environmental types anticipate this time of year for vastly different reasons.

Josh Buettner reports on the latest legal developments involving water quality. 

Late last week, a federal judge dismissed an historic lawsuit between Iowa’s largest drinking water provider and 10 farm drainage districts in 3 northwest Iowa counties.  

The suit alleged excess nitrate runoff from farm fertilizer impedes the Des Moines Water Works ability to comply with federal guidelines for clean water - claiming drain tile infrastructure upstream increases levels of the nitrogen by-product in local waterways.  Downstream, the utility taps the Raccoon River to serve over half a million ratepayers in Iowa’s capitol and surrounding communities. 

Water Works leadership said they will review their options, and in a statement, CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe said: “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.”

In 2015, Des Moines Water Works spent $1.5 million operating one of the world’s largest nitrate removal facilities.  However, Water Works officials believe they will need $80 million to maintain and upgrade machinery in the not too distant future.

Filed in 2015, the litigation sought to abolish agriculture’s exemption under the Clean Water Act by redefining farm tiling as point-source pollution.  The case WAS set for a showdown in federal court this summer, but the legal arguments were dealt substantial blows in the past few months.   

In January, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the immunity of drainage districts from financial damage claims.  And the recent federal ruling contends the Iowa legislature is the appropriate venue to address water quality.  But critics maintain recent statehouse actions have been more concerned with dismantling authority of Des Moines Water Works and its lawsuit through regionalization rather than tackling the real issue.

Though critical of its lack of timeline and accountability, Stowe concedes Iowa’s 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy, part of a larger plan to limit nitrogen and phosphorous flows throughout the Mississippi River basin, is now the state’s de facto path for clean water. 

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has championed voluntary conservation methods like cover crops and buffer strips.  He hailed the lawsuit’s demise in a statement, adding:  “There is still a lot of work to be done, but I truly believe that by working together, we can make big strides.”

And with the looming issue of a regional water authority awaiting floor debate, stakeholders are on the lookout for the Iowa’s legislature’s next move. 

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.


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