News Feature | February 1, 2017

Iowa Utility Dealt Setback In Nutrient Case

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Des Moines Water Works was a dealt a setback last week in its groundbreaking lawsuit against agricultural drainage districts which had attempted to hold farming interests accountable for the steep price of treating nutrient pollution.

“A divided Iowa Supreme Court on Friday upheld a legal doctrine going back 100 years that protects agriculture drainage districts against lawsuits,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.

“The court ruled that under state law, the drainage districts in northwest Iowa can’t be ordered to cover the costs of removing nitrates from rivers that are the source of drinking water,” WNAX reported.

Des Moines Water Works had hoped “to reverse nearly a century of legal precedent” protecting agricultural drainage districts. The utility said this legal protection stifles cleanup efforts in the agricultural sector, The Des Moines Register reported.

Reports framed the legal outcome as a major victory for farmers, since the court concluded that legislative action is necessary before nutrient cleanup costs can be shifted toward agriculture.

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote in the majority opinion, per the Register:

Ultimately, this case is about who pays for nitrate removal from the drinking water that reaches our kitchen faucets. The Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) does not claim nitrate levels render the Raccoon River unsafe for swimming or fishing. All parties agree the DMWW removes unsafe levels of nitrates from the water it provides to its customers ... It is for the Legislature to decide whether to reallocate the costs of nitrate reduction.

Environmentalists say the legal outcome could damage policy efforts to fund clean-water initiatives.

“The lawsuit has added pressure to implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary plan to cut nitrogen and phosphorus levels by 45 percent from rural and urban areas. It seeks to reduce Iowa's contribution to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an area about the size of Connecticut that's unable to support aquatic life each summer,” The Des Moines Register reported.

Still, for Des Moines Water Works, the court fight is not over.

“Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe says the utility will proceed with its federal lawsuit. A federal judge has set June 28th as the date for the case to be heard in federal court,” WNAX reported.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Nutrient Removal Solutions Center.