The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF), along with other Iowa agricultural groups, applauded a decision last week by the Iowa Supreme Court which rejected major portions of a lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) against drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, which upheld more than a century of precedent, means that northwest Iowa drainage districts, farmers and rural citizens will not be held liable for damages in the DMWW lawsuit.

"The lawsuit has done nothing to improve water quality, and has impeded that conservation progress," said Craig Hill, IFBF president. "Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality, but the challenge is bigger than farmers. That’s why farmers partnered, prior to the lawsuit, in key areas of the state to improve water quality. That work will and must continue."

Focus on collaboration

Farmers’ water quality efforts, which include collaboration and the adoption of practices designed and measured by Iowa State University researchers, will sustain the land and water for all Iowans, Hill said.

The Supreme Court ruling, Hill said, was a win for everyone involved in Iowa agriculture and who live in the state’s rural communities. "With one in five jobs directly tied to agriculture, rural Iowa has much at stake with this lawsuit, which from the beginning, had the potential to impact not just every farmer in Iowa, but agriculture throughout the United States," Hill said.

Hill’s comments were echoed by other Iowa agricultural leaders, including Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

"While Iowans have continued to take on the challenge of improving water quality and investing in additional conservation practices, the lawsuit has been a needless distraction from our collaborative, research-based approach that is working with Iowans in rural and urban areas across the state to improve water quality," Northey said.

Suit filed in 2015

The DMWW, led by CEO Bill Stowe, filed the lawsuit in 2015 in federal court in Sioux City asking the court to require the drainage districts to obtain federal permits, called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), for alleged nitrate discharges from agricultural drainage systems, and to pay for alleged damages.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett later asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether drainage districts are immune from damages, and cannot be forced to pay the utility’s costs to remove excess nitrates.

At that time, Bennett admitted that his standard test for determining whether to certify a question to the state’s highest court was probably not met, but said the importance and "novelty" of the case justified sending the questions forward.

In its ruling released Jan. 27, the Supreme Court upheld Iowa’s longstanding precedent that drainage districts, which have a limited, targeted role, have been immune from damage claims for more than a century. The court noted that this immunity was reaffirmed in a case just four years ago.

The case returns to the federal district court to decide whether to dismiss the case as requested by the drainage districts in their motions for summary judgment. If their motions are denied, the remainder of the lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in June.

Farm Bureau hopes the Federal District Court will dismiss the remaining aspects of the case, and that collaborative work to improve water quality and fund those continued efforts can be the unified focus of all Iowans moving forward, Hill said.

Efforts are ongoing

Progress in water quality, Hill and other ag officials said, is ongoing and farmers have made measurable improvements over the past 20 years.

Iowa farmers have nearly doubled their acres of conservation tillage. Iowa leads the nation in areas devoted to grass filters and buffer strips, which help catch nutrients and protect rivers and streams from runoff.

In addition, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey announced last fall that 1,800 Iowa farmers committed $3.8 million in cost share funds to install nutrient reduction practices. Iowa continues to see increases in the adoption of other practices, such as cover crops and bioreactors.