The state’s agricultural community is celebrating today after the Iowa Supreme Court dealt a set-back to a lawsuit that has essentially challenged the voluntary approach to reducing farm chemical run-off.
Bill Northey, a farmer from Spirit Lake, is the state’s Secretary of Agriculture.
“The things that Iowans are doing out there, the investment that the state’s making in water quality, the investments that individuals are making with water quality, all the individuals and groups that are coming together to improve water quality is a much better strategy than this legal strategy or potential regulatory strategy,” Northey told Radio Iowa this afternoon.
The manager of the Des Moines Water Works said during an afternoon news conference that he’s disappointed, but not surprised by the ruling. The court ruled that under state law, agricultural drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties cannot be ordered to cover the costs of removing ag chemicals from rivers that are the source of drinking water. Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe told reporters the utility will proceed with its federal lawsuit.
“We are more committed standing here today with you talking about our concerns about clean water in Iowa than we were two years ago when we began this litigation,” Stowe said.
AUDIO of Stowe’s news conference at DMWW, 29:00
The utility will argue in court that officials in the three counties have failed to abide by federal Clean Water Act standards.
“Drainage districts should be responsible for the pollutants they’re putting in the waters of the state,” Stowe said. “But now, the forum really changes.”
A federal judge has set June 28th as the date for the case to be heard in federal court. The water utility that serves central Iowa filed the lawsuit in March of 2015, sparking an uproar from farmers and commodity groups. The state’s ag secretary said the lawsuit is a “needless distraction” from the voluntary efforts of Iowa farmers and others to improve water quality in the state.
“This is such a lengthy process,” Northey said. “It’s been two years since they first initiated this case. It’ll be another six months before the rest of this case gets in front of the court and then it could be potentially years after that if there’s appeals.”
The CEO of the Des Moines Water Works said he has an ongoing responsibility to provide safe drinking water to his customers and the utility’s federal lawsuit will argue drainage districts should be getting federal permits under the Clean Water Act for the nitrogen and phosphorus coming out of the farm field tile lines.
“We view our concern about clean water and our claim in front of the federal district court for permitting of drainage districts to be very much alive,” he said, “and very important to the benefit of our ratepayers and to Iowans generally.”
Stowe said Des Moines Water Works customers will have to spend as much as $80 million over the next several years to build new filtration systems to deal with what he calls “agro-toxins.”
“We’re certainly in hopes that the federal decision here will reduce some of that concern by reducing the number of pollutants that are coming through the drainage districts into the waters of the state,” Stowe said.
The drainage districts targeted by the lawsuit are in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista Counties.
The state’s ag secretary said the Iowa Supreme Court ruling has “clarified” the difficulty Stowe’s utility will have in proving its case in federal court.
“I think it is a clear win in support of the drainage districts and the work that they do and certainly a push-back on the legal strategy of the Des Moines Water Works,” Northey said.
The Iowa Farm Bureau’s president issued a written statement earlier this afternoon, saying the lawsuit “has done nothing to improve water quality.”
“Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality, but the challenge is bigger than farmers,” Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Hill said. “That’s why farmers partnered, prior to the lawsuit, in key areas of the state to improve water quality…The best solution moving forward is to embrace collaborative efforts.”
A state senator issued a written statement late this afternoon, saying the Iowa Supreme Court decision should serve as a wake-up call that state policymakers must “clean up this mess.”
“Iowans shouldn’t have to wonder if they will have access to clean, affordable drinking water; and they shouldn’t be afraid to let their children and grandchildren swim in our lakes and rivers,” Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines, said. “More than ever, Iowans are going to demand that Governor Branstad, Lt. Governor Reynolds and all legislators get a backbone and solve Iowa’s water quality problems.”