Contentious Des Moines Water Works Litigation Comes to an End

Federal court dismisses Clean Water Act lawsuit against Iowa drainage districts

A federal district court has dismissed the controversial Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that put the agricultural community on edge for the past two years.  While the decision is favorable for agriculture, it didn’t resolve the question of whether the water utility could prove that nitrates draining from farm fields are harming the utility’s water sources.  The court’s dismissal prevents Des Moines Water Works from further asserting such claims.

The lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) utility sued irrigation districts in three Iowa counties for allowing discharges of nitrates through drainage infrastructure and into the waterways from which the utility drew its water.  In addition to claiming that the discharges violate the federal Clean Water Act’s permitting requirements, DMWW also asserted nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings without compensation, and due process and equal protection claims under Iowa law.   The utility sought monetary damages for the cost of removing nitrates from its water as well as an injunction ordering the drainage districts to stop the discharges with proper permits.

The federal district court first certified several questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to clarify whether Iowa law provided immunity to the drainage districts for DMWW’s claims.   On January 27, 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court responded in the positive, explaining that Iowa drainage districts had been immune from damages and injunctive relief claims for over a century because drainage districts “have a limited, targeted role—to facilitate the drainage of farmland in order to make it more productive.”  The Iowa court also clarified that Iowa’s Constitution did not provide a basis for DMWW’s constitutional arguments.

Turning to the party’s claims in light of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling, the federal district court focused on the drainage district’s motion to dismiss DMWW’s claims based on the doctrine of redressability, which requires a showing that the alleged injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision.  The doctrine of redressability concludes that a plaintiff cannot have standing to sue and therefore cannot proceed in a case if the defendant doesn’t have the power to redress or remedy the injury even if the court granted the requested relief.

The drainage districts argued that they could not redress DMWW’s Clean Water Act claims because the districts had no power to regulate the nitrates flowing through the drainage systems.  The court agreed, stating that “DMWW seeks injunctive relief and the assessment of civil penalties against the drainage districts arising from alleged duties and powers that the districts simply do not possess under Iowa law.  DMWW may well have suffered an injury, but the drainage districts lack the ability to redress that injury.”

The federal district court also dismissed DMWW’s remaining claims against the drainage districts.  DMWW argued that the immunity given the drainage districts as described by the Iowa Supreme Court prevented DMWW’s remaining claims and thus violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection, Due Process, and Takings Clauses.  The federal district court found these contentions to be “entirely devoid of merit” and dismissed the state law claims of nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings, due process and equal protection.  Because none of the counts against the drainage districts survived the court’s scrutiny, the court dismissed and closed the case.

What does the decision mean for agriculture?

The DMWW case was a futile but somewhat inventive attempt to allocate liability for nitrate pollution to the agricultural community.  “Unregulated agricultural discharges into Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams continue to increase costs to our customers and damage Iowa’s water quality and environment,” said DMWW’s CEO Bill Stowe upon filing the lawsuit.  A public poll by the Des Moines Register soon after Stowe brought the DMWW lawsuit showed that 42% of the respondents agreed with him in believing that farmers should pay for nitrate removal from DMWW’s waters, while 32% thought those who lived in Des Moines should pay to remove the nitrates.

If the goal is to force agriculture to reduce nutrient run off or pay for the cost of removing nutrients from waterways, the DMWW case tells us that suing those who oversee agricultural drainage infrastructure projects is not the proper mechanism for accomplishing that goal.  So will the next strategy be to sue the farmers who use the nutrients and the drainage infrastructure?

One challenge in suing farmers directly for nutrient runoff, and the issue that was not addressed in DMWW, is whether nutrient runoff from farm fields carried through drainage systems constitutes a “point source” that requires regulation under the Clean Water Act, or whether nutrient runoff fits within the agricultural exemption under the Clean Water Act.  That law defines a “point source” as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged,” but states that point sources do not include “agricultural storm water discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture.”  What we still don’t know after two years of DMWW litigation is whether a court would put the transport of agricultural nutrients through drainage systems in the point source definition or would consider it an agricultural exemption from the point source definition.

A second challenge in an attempt to bring agricultural nutrients under the Clean Water Act is whether a plaintiff could prove the actual origin of a downstream nutrient—who applied the nutrient that ended up downstream?  DMWW sought to minimize this challenge by suing the drainage districts that oversee the entire region.   But DMWW still would have had to trace the nutrients to the region, a difficult task.

Meanwhile, the agricultural community expects that its voluntary efforts to reduce nitrate and phosphorus runoff from farm fields will positively impact water quality and reduce the possibility of more litigation like the DMWW case.   A multitude of voluntary efforts are underway, such as Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the flourish of cover crops in the Western Lake Erie Basin.  Ohio has also added a regulatory approach that requires farmers to engage in fertilizer application training.   Let’s hope these initiatives will reduce nutrient impacts before another party is willing to point its finger and agriculture and pursue a lawsuit like DMWW.

Read the federal district court’s decision in DMWW here.  Our previous post on DMWW is available here.

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