By Ben Nuelle

Farmers in Iowa are breathing a sigh of relief after a favorable 3-2 ruling by the state Supreme Court in the lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) seeking damages for alleged water pollution caused by nearby drainage districts.

For the past 2 years, there's been an ongoing battle between DMWW and 13 drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties. The Water Works claims runoff from fertilizers are polluting the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers at excessive rates and argues that farmers should ultimately pay.

But some accuse Water Works of using the lawsuit as a way to pay for equipment that needs updating. According to Bill Stowe, the Water Works CEO, it will cost “tens of millions of dollars” to update the filtration equipment needed at the facilities.

“The current denitrification technology is outdated and cannot continue to operate with rising nitrate levels and increased customer demand,” DMWW says on its website. “Continued high nitrate concentrations will require future capital investments of $80 million to remove the pollutant and provide safe drinking water to a growing central Iowa.”

In its opinion, the court said that DMWW could not recover damages from the drainage districts, because they have immunity under state law. However, the decision does not affect the overarching Clean Water Act lawsuit, which will go to trial in June in Sioux City.

Iowa agriculture groups and officials praised the ruling.

“This decision is a significant loss for Des Moines Water Works,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. “Their failed strategy seeks to circumvent well-established Iowa law with more than 100 years of precedent.  Unfortunately, it has already cost Des Moines Water Works ratepayers more than $1 million on lawyer fees that could be better spent improving their infrastructure and serving their customers.

“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.”

Iowa Corn Growers Assn. President Kurt Hora call it a major victory.

“It was positive for agriculture and I think that means we're doing the right thing out here. We're going to continue to implement the nutrient reduction strategy and our farmers need to be able to drain that ground. That is going to be a huge part of what we have going here.”

Joel Brinkmeyer is CEO of the Agricultural Legal Defense Fund in Des Moines. He says the group is happy with the decision.

“It was really expected because the Supreme Court upheld over a hundred years of precedent already established in supporting Iowa law. It is not a surprise but it is most certainly a win for the defendants and we're very pleased about that.”

At an afternoon press conference, Stowe said DMWW respects the court's opinion but was disappointed that the court did “provide an opportunity for relief to Des Moines Water Works' ratepayers.”

Still, he said, “Unresolved questions of permitting and, ultimately regulation, are not addressed yet, and remain at the heart of the federal case.”

“The Iowa Supreme Court's decision was an opportunity for moving 100-year old Iowa law progressively forward on water quality issues never before considered, but that opportunity did not command a majority on the Court. We were pleased Chief Justice (Mark) Cady stated in his separate opinion that ‘Pollution of our streams is a wrong, irrespective of its source or its cause' and we look toward a day when a majority of the court may agree.”

Stowe disputed Northey's $1 million estimate of legal fees, saying the number is actually $821,000. He also criticized the state's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, saying that voluntary actions “simply have not borne any fruit.”

“The state should be ashamed of its surface water quality,” Stowe said.