A federal district court late last Friday dismissed for lack of standing a lawsuit brought by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) against several Iowa counties over alleged water pollution. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa ruled that even if DMWW could prove an injury, the drainage districts of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties can’t remedy it.
In late January, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that state law immunizes county drainage districts from legal claims. The districts were instituted in Iowa to allow wetlands to be turned into productive farmland by moving water off fields. DMMW, which provides drinking water to about half a million Iowans, sued the drainage districts, claiming they allowed nitrates from agricultural lands to get into the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. DMWW is required to meet certain federal water-quality standards, including a maximum level of nitrates.
Relying on 100 years of Iowa law, the state high court ruled that the drainage districts have “a limited, targeted role – to facilitate the drainage of farmland in order to make it more productive” – and are, therefore, immune from damages claims and from injunctive relief claims other than ones to compel it to perform a statutory duty.
DMWW also brought claims under the federal Clean Water Act and the state’s water pollution control law. In dismissing the federal lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand said Iowa’s water-quality problems are an issue for the Iowa legislature.