Des Moines Water Works
Federal court dismisses Clean Water Act lawsuit against Iowa drainage districts
A federal district court has dismissed the controversial Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that put the agricultural community on edge for the past two years. While the decision is favorable for agriculture, it doesn’t resolve the question of whether the water utility could prove that nitrates draining from farm fields are harming the utility’s water sources. The court’s dismissal prevents Des Moines Water Works from further asserting such claims.
The lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) utility sued irrigation districts in three Iowa counties for allowing discharges of nitrates through drainage infrastructure and into the waterways from which the utility drew its water. In addition to claiming that the discharges violate the federal Clean Water Act’s permitting requirements, DMWW also asserted nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings without compensation, and due process and equal protection claims under Iowa law. The utility sought monetary damages for the cost of removing nitrates from its water as well as an injunction ordering the drainage districts to stop the discharges with proper permits.
The federal district court first certified several questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to clarify whether Iowa law provided immunity to the drainage districts for DMWW’s claims. On January 27, 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court responded in the positive, explaining that Iowa drainage districts had been immune from damages and injunctive relief claims for over a century because drainage districts “have a limited, targeted role—to facilitate the drainage of farmland in order to make it more productive.” The Iowa court also clarified that Iowa’s Constitution did not provide a basis for DMWW’s constitutional arguments.
Turning to the party’s claims in light of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling, the federal district court focused on the drainage district’s motion to dismiss DMWW’s claims based on the doctrine of redressability, which requires a showing that the alleged injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. The doctrine of redressability concludes that a plaintiff cannot have standing to sue and therefore cannot proceed in a case if the defendant doesn’t have the power to redress or remedy the injury even if the court granted the requested relief.
The drainage districts argued that they could not redress DMWW’s Clean Water Act claims because the districts had no power to regulate the nitrates flowing through the drainage systems. The court agreed, stating that “DMWW seeks injunctive relief and the assessment of civil penalties against the drainage districts arising from alleged duties and powers that the districts simply do not possess under Iowa law. DMWW may well have suffered an injury, but the drainage districts lack the ability to redress that injury.”
The federal district court also dismissed DMWW’s remaining claims against the drainage districts. DMWW argued that the immunity given the drainage districts as described by the Iowa Supreme Court prevented DMWW’s remaining claims and thus violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection, Due Process, and Takings Clauses. The federal district court found these contentions to be “entirely devoid of merit” and dismissed the state law claims of nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings, due process and equal protection. Because none of the counts against the drainage districts survived the court’s scrutiny, the court dismissed and closed the case.
What does the decision mean for agriculture?
The DMWW case was a futile but somewhat inventive attempt to allocate liability for nitrate pollution to the agricultural community. “Unregulated agricultural discharges into Iowa's rivers, lakes and streams continue to increase costs to our customers and damage Iowa's water quality and environment,” said DMWW’s CEO Bill Stowe upon filing the lawsuit. A public poll by the Des Moines Register soon after Stowe brought the DMWW lawsuit showed that 42% of the respondents agreed with him in believing that farmers should pay for nitrate removal from DMWW’s waters, while 32% thought those who lived in Des Moines should pay to remove the nitrates.
If the goal is to force agriculture to reduce nutrient run off or pay for the cost of removing nutrients from waterways, the DMWW case tells us that suing those who oversee agricultural drainage infrastructure projects is not the proper mechanism for accomplishing that goal. So will the next strategy be to sue the farmers who use the nutrients and the drainage infrastructure?
One challenge in suing farmers for nutrient runoff, and the issue that was not addressed in DMWW, is whether nutrient runoff from farm fields carried through drainage systems constitutes a “point source” that requires regulation under the Clean Water Act, or whether nutrient runoff fits within the agricultural exemption under the Clean Water Act. That law defines a “point source” as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged,” but states that point sources do not include “agricultural storm water discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture.” What we still don’t know after two years of DMWW litigation is whether a court would put the transport of agricultural nutrients through drainage systems in the point source definition or would consider it an agricultural exemption from the point source definition.
A second challenge in an attempt to bring agricultural nutrients under the Clean Water Act is the burden of proof upon the plaintiff to prove the actual origin of a downstream nutrient—who applied the nutrient that ended up downstream? DMWW sought to minimize this challenge by suing the drainage districts that oversee the entire region. But had the case proceeded, DMWW still would have had to trace the nutrients to the region, a difficult task.
The agricultural community expects that its voluntary efforts to reduce nitrate and phosphorus runoff from farm fields will positively impact water quality and stem the possibility of more litigation like the DMWW case. A multitude of voluntary efforts are underway, such as Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the flourish of cover crops in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Ohio has also added a regulatory approach that requires farmers to engage in fertilizer application training. Let’s hope these initiatives will reduce nutrient impacts before another party is willing to point its finger at agriculture and pursue a lawsuit like DMWW.
Written by: Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Board of Trustees of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) brought a lawsuit against thirteen Iowa drainage districts. DMWW is the biggest water provider in Iowa, serving the largest city, Des Moines, and the surrounding area. Drainage districts were first created in Iowa in the 1800s to drain wetlands and allow for agriculture in those areas. In Iowa, the counties are in charge of drainage districts. Individual landowners can tile their land so that it drains water to the ditches, pipes, etc. that make up the counties’ drainage districts. Eventually, that water ends up in Iowa’s rivers. The thirteen drainage districts being sued by DMWW are located in the Raccoon River watershed in Buena Vista, Sac, and Calhoun counties. DMWW is located downstream from the drainage districts in question.
Background of the Lawsuit
On March 16, 2015, the Board of Trustees for the DMWW filed a complaint against the thirteen drainage districts in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division. DMWW alleged that the drainage districts did not act in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and provisions of the Iowa Code because they did not secure the applicable permits to discharge nitrates into the Raccoon River. In order to serve its customers, DMWW uses the Raccoon River as part of its water supply.
DMWW has to meet maximum contaminant levels prescribed under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Nitrate is a contaminant with a maximum allowable level of 10 mg/L. In its complaint, DMWW cited record levels of nitrate in water from the Raccoon River watershed in recent years. DMWW alleged that the nitrate problem is exacerbated by the “artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure…created, managed, maintained, owned and operated by” the thirteen drainage districts. DMWW alleged that the drainage district infrastructure—“pipes, ditches, and other conduits”—are point sources. DMWW points to agriculture—row crops, livestock production, and spreading of manure, as a major source of nitrate pollution.
DMWW also cited a number of costs associated with dealing with nitrates, including the construction of facilities that remove nitrates, the operation of those facilities, and the cost associated with acquiring permits to discharge the removed waste. In their complaint, they generally asked the court to make the drainage districts reimburse them for their cleanup costs, and to make the drainage districts stop discharging pollutants without permits.
All together, DMWW filed ten counts against the drainage districts. In addition to their claim that the drainage districts had violated the CWA and similarly, Iowa’s Chapter 455B, DMWW also alleged that the continued nitrate pollution violated a number of other state and federal laws. DMWW maintained that the pollution was a public, statutory, and private nuisance, trespassing, negligence, a taking without just compensation, and a violation of due process and equal protection under the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions. Finally, DMWW sought injunctive relief from the court to enjoin the drainage districts to lessen the amount of nitrates in the water. In many of the counts, DMWW asked the court for damages to reimburse them for their costs of dealing with the pollution.
On May 22, 2015, the defendants, the thirteen drainage districts, filed their amended answer with the court. On January 11, 2016, the district court filed an order certifying questions to the Iowa Supreme Court. In other words, the district court judge submitted four questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to be answered before commencing the federal trial. The idea behind this move was that the highest court in Iowa would be better equipped to answer questions of state law than the district court.
Iowa Supreme Court Decision
The Iowa Supreme Court filed its opinion containing the answers to the four state law questions on January 27, 2017. All of the questions were decided in favor of the drainage districts. The court answered two questions related to whether the drainage districts had unqualified immunity (complete protection) from the money damages and equitable remedies (actions ordered by the court to be taken or avoided in order to make amends for the harm caused) requested by DMWW. Both were answered in the affirmative—the court said that Iowa legislation and court decisions have, throughout history, given drainage districts immunity. Iowa law has long found the service drainage districts provide—draining swampy land so that it could be farmed—to be of great value to the citizens of the state. To that end, the law has been “liberally construed” to promote the actions of drainage districts. What is more, judicial precedent in the state has repeatedly found that drainage districts are not entities that can be sued for money damages because they are not corporations, and they have such a limited purpose—to drain land and provide upkeep for that drainage. The law has further prohibited receiving injunctive relief (obtaining a court order to require an action to be taken or stopped), from drainage districts. Instead, the only remedy available to those “claim[ing] that a drainage district is violating a duty imposed by an Iowa statute” is mandamus. Mandamus allows the court to compel a party to carry out actions that are required by the law. In this case, those requirements would be draining land and the upkeep of the drainage system.
The second two questions considered by the court dealt with the Iowa Constitution. The court determined whether or not DMWW could claim the constitutional protections of due process, equal protection, and takings. They also answered whether DMWW’s property interest in the water could even be “the subject of a claim under...[the] takings clause.” The court answered “no” to both questions, and therefore against DMWW. Their reasoning was that both DMWW and the drainage districts are subdivisions of state government, and based on numerous decisions in Iowa courts, “one subdivision of state government cannot sue another…under these clauses.” Additionally, the court found that “political subdivisions, as creatures of statute, cannot sue to challenge the constitutionality of state statutes.” Consequently, they reasoned that the pollution of the water and the resulting need to remove that pollution did “not amount to a constitutional violation” under Iowa law. The court also found that since the water in question was not private property, the takings claim was not valid. A takings claim only applies to when the government takes private property. What is more, the court added that regardless of its status as a public or private body, DMWW was not actually deprived of any property—they still had the ability to use the water. Therefore, the Iowa Supreme Court answered all four state law questions in the drainage districts’ favor, and against DMWW.
The Iowa Supreme Court found that the questions of state law favored the drainage districts, but that is not necessarily the end of this lawsuit. Now that the questions of state law are answered, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, can decide the questions of federal law. If any of the numerous motions for summary judgment are not granted to the drainage districts, a trial to decide the remaining questions is set for June 26, 2017. The questions left for the district court to decide include a number of U.S. Constitutional issues.
One of these issues is whether the drainage districts’ discharge of nitrates into the water constitutes a “taking” of DMWW’s private property for a public use under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Another issue is whether the drainage districts’ state-given immunity infringes upon DMWW’s constitutional rights of due process, equal protection, and just compensation. An important federal law question that also remains to be decided is whether the drainage districts are “point sources” that require a permit to discharge pollutants under the CWA.
How will the outcome affect other states?
Either outcome in this lawsuit will have implications for the rest of the country. For example, if the district court sides with DMWW on all of the questions, it could open the floodgates to potential lawsuits against drainage districts and other similar entities around the country for polluting water. Municipal and other users of the water could assert an infringement of their constitutional rights, including taking without just compensation. Furthermore, if drainage districts are found to be “point sources,” it could mean greater costs of permitting and cleanup for drainage districts and other state drainage entities. Those costs and additional regulations could be passed onto farmers within the watershed. As a result, farmers and water suppliers around the country will closely follow the district court’s decisions on the remaining questions in the case.
All of the court documents and decisions concerning this lawsuit, as well as additional articles and blog posts on the topic can be found here. Additional reading on the subject from the Des Moines Register can be found here and here.