Iowa’s high court stops lawsuit over farm runoff pollution

DES MOINES, Iowa — A sharply divided Iowa Supreme Court on Friday stopped a lawsuit aimed at reducing the flow of fertilizer and hog farm waste into the state’s river and streams, finding that limiting pollution from farms was a political matter and not one for the courts.

The 4-3 decision handed a significant defeat to environmental groups hoping to get the chance to prove that Iowa should scrap it’s voluntary farm pollution policy, order new mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and stop construction of new hog barns.

It is the latest court rejection of an attempt to force the nation’s leading corn and pork producing state to clean up farm pollutants from its major rivers that provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Iowans.

The lawsuit, which was brought by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, contended that unregulated farm pollution is violating the rights of citizens to clean water in the Raccoon River for recreational and drinking water use.

It said a legal concept that precedes Iowa statehood — the public trust doctrine — should apply to this case and require the state to ensure that citizens have a useable Raccoon River untainted by excess pollution caused by farm runoff of fertilizer and animal manure.

A state judge ruled in 2019 that the environmental groups sufficiently demonstrated that they suffered injury because the river’s untreated water is too polluted to enjoy recreationally or aesthetically. The state appealed the ruling and asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Four of the court’s conservative justices said the environmental groups didn’t show that the state’s actions had caused a concrete injury the courts could fix. They also said the public trust doctrine historically hasn’t been used to solve a problem as complex as the environmental issues raised, and that the issues at the heart of the case were political questions that would fall to the Legislature to settle.

“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. The plaintiffs’ claims must therefore be dismissed for lack of standing,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote for the majority.

He said the Des Moines Water Works would have better standing to sue, but he pointed out that the utility already did so and lost a 2017 federal court case that was also dismissed.

The utility filed a brief with the state Supreme Court saying it was pursuing the development of alternate sources of water but that its long-range plans involve the implementation of new treatment technologies that would cost customers tens of millions of dollars.

“DMWW’s decision to invest millions of dollars in treatment infrastructure to contend with nutrient pollution in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers should reveal the magnitude of the water quality problem in Iowa,” the utility wrote.

The Iowa attorney general’s office declined to comment immediately on the ruling.

The plaintiffs said in a statement that they were considering all of their options.

“The fight for clean water in Iowa is far from over,” they said. “Until further action is taken, industrial agricultural runoff will continue to pollute the river unimpeded, and Iowans’ right to clean water will remain a right without a remedy.”

Justices Brent Appel, Christopher McDonald and Dana Oxley would have allowed the environmental groups’ case to proceed to trial.

Oxley said the court majority’s “dismissive characterization of the plaintiffs’ requested declaratory relief as too general rings hollow.” She said if a court struck down the state’s current voluntary pollution strategy for farmers, the state could impose mandatory regulations on farmers that would provide relief to the plaintiffs that meets constitutional standards.

The Raccoon River is a 31-mile tributary of the Des Moines River and is a primary source of drinking water for about 500,000 central Iowa customers of the Des Moines Water Works. The utility’s nitrate removal system was one of the largest in the world when it was built in 1992.

Iowa is the nation’s leading pork producer, with about 24 million pigs on farms that discharge billions of gallons of liquid manure into the environment every year. The state also is the nation’s leading producer of corn, which requires significant amounts of nitrogen fertilizer to thrive. Iowa also has one of the most elaborate farm field drainage systems, which often dumps excess fertilizer and manure into waterways.