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Iowa court ruling confirms drainage district immunity
Water Ruling

Iowa court ruling confirms drainage district immunity

2016 water quality

Iowa farm groups cheered a ruling issued Friday by the Iowa Supreme Court that dealt a blow to the Des Moines Water Works in its lawsuit against three northwest Iowa drainage districts.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, is still scheduled to go to trial in late June, but farmers and farm leaders say the Jan. 27 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court is an important one.

“I’m excited for the farmers of our county,” says Jolene Riessen, a farmer from Ida Grove whose family also farms in Sac County.

The lawsuit in question was filed by the Des Moines Water Works against drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties. It asked for damages and for injunctive rights against those drainage districts due to the presence of nitrates in the water of the Des Moines River.

Des Moines Water Works operates a nitrate removal facility on water it takes from the river to provide drinking water to the Des Moines metro area.

A federal judge had sent four questions regarding state law to the Iowa Supreme Court. A plurality of the Iowa court issued the ruling, and it found in favor of the drainage districts on all four points, according to Kristine Tidgren, an assistant director of the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation (CALT) at Iowa State University.

The Iowa court has seven members, but two recused themselves from this case. All five remaining justices agreed on some of the four questions, while only three agreed on other parts.

The first two questions were especially important in the case.

One asked whether, as a matter of law, Iowa drainage districts had unqualified immunity from all damage claims. The second asked whether the same districts also had unqualified immunity from equitable remedies and claims (requirements that they act in a certain way, such as requiring farmers in the district to implement specific practices). The court ruled on both questions the districts had such immunity.

The third and fourth questions were in regards to whether the Water Works could claim certain constitutional rights under the Iowa constitution were being violated, and the answer to both questions was no.

“It’s a pretty strong decision on the four questions that were asked,” says Eldon McAfee, an attorney at the Brick Gentry law firm in Des Moines who has worked with several agricultural organizations.

In short, McAfee says, the court ruled the Water Works can’t, under state law, gain money or damages from the drainage districts or force them to demand farmers in their districts make changes.

That doesn’t settle the case at this time, he cautions. There are two motions filed by the drainage districts on the table yet in the federal case, and this Iowa Supreme Court ruling will have a significant impact in one and possibly both of those motions. Depending on how the federal judge rules on those motions, the case may not make it to trial. That trial is scheduled for two weeks in late June.

Meanwhile, legal experts are looking over the arguments made in the ruling and many farm leaders are enjoying the fact the court ruled in favor of the districts.

“I think it is good news,” says Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill. “We never felt that the lawsuits were the way to go. … We think collaboration will work better.”

The ruling should not impact the discussion in the state legislature about funding for water quality programs, Hill says. He says the lawsuit targeted drainage districts, which he says were never designed to deal with water quality issues and which not intended to be liable for these types of damages.

Riessen says farmers are making changes in the way they deal with soil and water issues.

“It (water quality) is a big issue,” she says. “And for farmers it is truly a big challenge.”

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