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Iowa’s Civil Water Wars Highlight the Mississippi Basin Water Quality Challenge

There is a court confrontation going on in Iowa that will help shed light on the extent to which the existing federal clean water regulatory structure can be used to reduce nutrient content of drain tiled return flows that feed the Mississippi and its many tributaries.

In its efforts to serve the citizenry and businesses that need dependable and reasonably priced drinking and process water, the Des Moines Water Works sued up stream counties and drainage districts from which substantial amounts of nutrient pollution was entering the river system. They filed suit in 2015 in the federal District Court in Iowa. The suit is now a central point of contention that is affecting Iowa politics, because it has stirred up contentious debate in the Iowa legislature over how to pay for clean drinking water for cities such as Des Moines and whether some additional regulatory or financial burdens should be placed on farmers. [Board of Water Works Trustees of the City of Des Moines v. Sac County Board of Supervisors et al., Case No. 5:15-cv-04020 (N.D. Iowa).]

At the Iowa Supreme Court—Remarkably, in an age where litigation is the daily bread of news stories, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that the drainage districts are immune from ordinary litigation or complaints for damages. [Board of Water Works, et al., v. Sac Board County of Supervisors, et al., S. Ct. Case No. 16-0076 (Jan. 27, 2017).] See,

As it stands, Iowa can be respected for not allowing one government entity to sue another, but it does so at what will be the urban taxpayers’ expense. The Chief Judge, while concurring in part, filed a brief opinion that wishes the Court would have shown itself to be more in touch with popular sentiment that respects rivers and streams as important public resources. The Chief Judge would have allowed trial to proceed over the facts and thereafter applied the law as it appeared most appropriate to address the competing expectations.

(Harvey M. Sheldon)