The Iowa Supreme Court has thrown out a district court ruling that allowed Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Water Watch to sue the state over water quality.
The Supreme Court ruling says it is speculative that a favorable court decision would lead to a more aesthetically pleasing Raccoon River, better swimming, kayaking, and lower water rates in the Des Moines metropolitan area. The ruling says the groups are simply seeking broad, abstract declarations that do not provide any assurance of concrete results.
The 4-3 decision says the remedy sought by the groups is quite general and the environmental groups admit it can only be done through legislation. The ruling says that opens the question “what would the legislation look like” as “there is no free lunch” and there are going to be costs involved in some way.
It says the 2008 Water Quality Improvement Plan that is cited in the petition would only produce a 20% reduction in Raccoon River nitrate levels which would not come close to meeting the 48.1% reduction in nitrate levels that the plaintiffs allege is needed. And it says a reduction in fertilizer application would affect yields and make Iowa farmers less competitive.
The opinion also notes that legislature might decide to charge the costs of efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff to the public rather than just to farmers — which could lead to even higher out-of-pocket expenditures for the plaintiffs’ members.
Here’s the full ruling: Water quality ruling PDF
The CEO of Iowa’s largest water utility says today’s Iowa Supreme Court’s dismissal of a lawsuit that was seeking mandatory regulation of farm fertilizer in the Raccoon River watershed is a set back. Ted Corrigan is CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, which draws drinking water for 500,000 customers from the Raccoon River.
“We’re disappointed the suit won’t move forward,” Corrigan said. “We think water quality in Iowa is important and it deserved the discussion, but moving forward we see a wide path between litigation, which that was, and legislation which we think it’s going to take.”
The Iowa Supreme Court cited the unsuccessful 2017 lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works filed against three northwest county drainage districts. Corrigan said that lawsuit was necessary to “kick start a conversation” about water quality.
“While I tend to believe that we won’t make the progress we need to make without public policy change and that may not happen without litigation, the time is now for following that other path — collaboration, opportunities to continue that conversation and get the process started,” Corrigan said during taping of “Iowa Press” which airs tonight on Iowa PBS.
In its opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court described water quality as a “complex environmental problem” that is a political question to be resolved by the legislative and executive branches of government.