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Raccoon River Water Quality Lawsuit Dries Up In Iowa Supreme Court

Iowa Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines.
Christine Warner
IPR file
The Raccoon River is a main source of drinking water for the Des Moines metro but is routinely impaired by high levels of farm nutrients.

A lawsuit aimed at creating mandatory water quality regulations to reduce farm pollution in the Raccoon River will not proceed after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the case asked the courts to infringe on the powers of the legislature.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch filed the lawsuit in March 2019. They argued the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the state's policy encouraging farmers to adopt conservation practices voluntarily, has failed to protect the Raccoon River as a public resource for drinking water and recreation.

The river is a primary supply of water for the Des Moines Water Works and the approximately 500,000 people it serves, but is routinely contaminated with high levels of nitrates and other nutrients related to livestock manure and fertilizer runoff from farm fields.

In a 4-3 decision issued Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court sided with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and livestock groups that argued the state cannot be forced to create mandatory programs to regulate farmers in the Raccoon River watershed.

Justice Edward Mansfield wrote in the majority opinion that the case could not proceed in part because the problem is too large and complex for a court ruling to solve.

“There is not enough here to demonstrate that a favorable outcome in this case is likely to redress the plaintiffs’ alleged reduced ability to kayak, swim, or enjoy views of the Raccoon River, or would save them money on drinking water,” Mansfield wrote. “The plaintiffs’ claims must therefore be dismissed for lack of standing.”

Mansfield added that asking the courts to determine an effective plan to reduce pollution in the river would require the judiciary to do the work of the legislature.

“In the end, we believe it would exceed our institutional role to ‘hold the State accountable to the public,’” Mansfield said. “Those words, used by the plaintiffs to describe what they ask of us, go beyond the accepted role of courts and would entangle us in overseeing the political branches of government.”

Iowa CCI and Food & Water Watch said the ruling is a disappointment and that the groups are considering their options. They said without further action, pollution from agricultural runoff will continue.

“We do believe that the courts have the authority to go back and take a look at this, again, because it goes back to Iowa’s constitution and what’s known as the public trust doctrine,” said Adam Mason, state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

Under the public trust doctrine, Iowa residents have the right to access public lakes and rivers. Iowa CCI and Food and Water Watch argue that means the state must also protect public waters from pollution.

Des Moines attorney Eldon McAfee, who filed a brief for the Iowa Pork Producers Association and other livestock groups supporting the state's position in the case, said the court ultimately sided with the argument that water quality policy should be left to the legislature.

“Without getting into whether it’s good policy, bad policy, etc., the question is, ‘Is this a job for the legislature or a job for the courts?’” McAfee said. “And this court said we’re being asked to do something that is the job of the legislature.”

The dissenting justices argued that the court was ending the environmental groups’ legal challenge prematurely.

Justice Christopher McDonald wrote that it might not be possible for the judicial branch to arrange a constitutional solution regulating the Raccoon River. But, he said, this case “is at the headwaters,” and should be allowed to “continue downstream.”

Neil Hamilton, the former director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center, said by acting on a motion to dismiss the case, the Supreme Court avoids having to rule on the question of whether the state’s water quality efforts are serving the public interest.

“I think it’s clear from the court’s opinion, the majority’s opinion, that the majority didn’t want anything to do with wading into the water quality issues in Iowa,” Hamilton said. “And they in some ways went out of their way at a relatively early stage in this case to issue a ruling to that effect.”

The ruling adds to evidence that lawsuits are unlikely to lead to the changes that water quality advocates are after, Hamilton said. In 2017, a federal judge dismissed a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit aimed at requiring drainage districts in northwest Iowa to issue water quality regulations.

“If there is a path, it must be fairly narrow and twisting and nobody’s found it yet,” Hamilton said.

McAfee said the message from the justices is that water quality policies will not be changed through the courts.

“I’m sure the people who feel differently will keep looking, but I believe the courts now twice have ruled that if you want a change here, your venue is with the legislature.”

Mason of Iowa CCI said the group did not look to the courts as a “silver bullet.” He also does not expect changes to come from the legislature in the next session.

“However, what we are hopeful for is those elections that are coming up later in 2022,” Mason said. “That’s when voters will have a chance to send a message to their elected officials that we need to do better when it comes to clean water.”

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa