The Raccoon River in Des Moines.

The Iowa Supreme Court says the Des Moines Water Works cannot win any damages in a lawsuit against the drainage districts in three Iowa counties.

The Des Moines Water Works sued saying officials in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac Counties have failed to adequately manage drainage districts in their area, causing nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers  downstream to rise to record high levels , costing them millions of dollars to treat the water. The lawsuit sought damages from the water districts, saying they should not be given immunity because they do not provide a benefit to public health.

The Supreme Court ruling says the drainage districts do provide a public health benefit and by draining the land convert economically unproductive swamps into tillable farmland. The ruling says Iowa law has immunized drainage districts from damages claims for over a century. It says this immunity was reaffirmed unanimously by the court just over four years ago.

The Des Moines Water Works also argued its rights were being violated under the Iowa Constitution. The Supreme Court says “these constitutional clauses are fundamental to our freedom in Iowa, they exist to protect citizens against overreaching government. Generally, one subdivision of state government cannot sue another subdivision of state government under these clauses. And even if they could, an increased need to treat nitrates drawn from river water to meet standards for kitchen tap water would not amount to a constitutional violation.”

The ruling says the case is about who pays for the nitrate removal, not about health, as it says the Water Works does not claim the nitrates make the water unsafe for swimming or fishing. The Supreme Court says the legislature should decide who pays the cost of removing the nitrates.

Here’s the full ruling: Des Moines Water Works lawsuit PDF