Des Moines Water Works Lawsuit: What’s Happened, What’s Next?

Thursday, February 16th, 2017
Peggy Kirk Hall, Asst. Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law

Written by:  Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The Parties

The Board of Trustees of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) brought a lawsuit against thirteen Iowa drainage districts.  DMWW is the biggest water provider in Iowa, serving the largest city, Des Moines, and the surrounding area. Drainage districts were first created in Iowa in the 1800s to drain wetlands and allow for agriculture in those areas.  In Iowa, the counties are in charge of drainage districts.  Individual landowners can tile their land so that it drains water to the ditches, pipes, etc. that make up the counties’ drainage districts.  Eventually, that water ends up in Iowa’s rivers.  The thirteen drainage districts being sued by DMWW are located in the Raccoon River watershed in Buena Vista, Sac, and Calhoun counties.  DMWW is located downstream from the drainage districts in question.

Background of the Lawsuit

On March 16, 2015, the Board of Trustees for the DMWW filed a complaint against the thirteen drainage districts in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division.  DMWW alleged that the drainage districts did not act in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and provisions of the Iowa Code because they did not secure the applicable permits to discharge nitrates into the Raccoon River.  In order to serve its customers, DMWW uses the Raccoon River as part of its water supply. 

 DMWW has to meet maximum contaminant levels prescribed under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.  Nitrate is a contaminant with a maximum allowable level of 10 mg/L.  In its complaint, DMWW cited record levels of nitrate in water from the Raccoon River watershed in recent years.  DMWW alleged that the nitrate problem is exacerbated by the “artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure…created, managed, maintained, owned and operated by” the thirteen drainage districts.  DMWW alleged that the drainage district infrastructure—“pipes, ditches, and other conduits”—are point sources.  DMWW points to agriculture—row crops, livestock production, and spreading of manure, as a major source of nitrate pollution. 

 DMWW also cited a number of costs associated with dealing with nitrates, including the construction of facilities that remove nitrates, the operation of those facilities, and the cost associated with acquiring permits to discharge the removed waste.  In their complaint, they generally asked the court to make the drainage districts reimburse them for their cleanup costs, and to make the drainage districts stop discharging pollutants without permits.

 All together, DMWW filed ten counts against the drainage districts.  In addition to their claim that the drainage districts had violated the CWA and similarly, Iowa’s Chapter 455B, DMWW also alleged that the continued nitrate pollution violated a number of other state and federal laws.  DMWW maintained that the pollution was a public, statutory, and private nuisance, trespassing, negligence, a taking without just compensation, and a violation of due process and equal protection under the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions.  Finally, DMWW sought injunctive relief from the court to enjoin the drainage districts to lessen the amount of nitrates in the water.  In many of the counts, DMWW asked the court for damages to reimburse them for their costs of dealing with the pollution. 

On May 22, 2015, the defendants, the thirteen drainage districts, filed their amended answer with the court.   On January 11, 2016, the district court filed an order certifying questions to the Iowa Supreme Court.  In other words, the district court judge submitted four questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to be answered before commencing the federal trial.  The idea behind this move was that the highest court in Iowa would be better equipped to answer questions of state law than the district court. 

Iowa Supreme Court Decision

 The Iowa Supreme Court filed its opinion containing the answers to the four state law questions on January 27, 2017.  All of the questions were decided in favor of the drainage districts.  The court answered two questions related to whether the drainage districts had unqualified immunity (complete protection) from the money damages and equitable remedies (actions ordered by the court to be taken or avoided in order to make amends for the harm caused) requested by DMWW.  Both were answered in the affirmative—the court said that Iowa legislation and court decisions have, throughout history, given drainage districts immunity.  Iowa law has long found the service drainage districts provide—draining swampy land so that it could be farmed—to be of great value to the citizens of the state.  To that end, the law has been “liberally construed” to promote the actions of drainage districts.  What is more, judicial precedent in the state has repeatedly found that drainage districts are not entities that can be sued for money damages because they are not corporations, and they have such a limited purpose—to drain land and provide upkeep for that drainage.  The law has further prohibited receiving injunctive relief  (obtaining a court order to require an action to be taken or stopped), from drainage districts.  Instead, the only remedy available to those “claim[ing] that a drainage district is violating a duty imposed by an Iowa statute” is mandamus.  Mandamus allows the court to compel a party to carry out actions that are required by the law.  In this case, those requirements would be draining land and the upkeep of the drainage system. 

 The second two questions considered by the court dealt with the Iowa Constitution.  The court determined whether or not DMWW could claim the constitutional protections of due process, equal protection, and takings.  They also answered whether DMWW’s property interest in the water could even be “the subject of a claim under...[the] takings clause.”  The court answered “no” to both questions, and therefore against DMWW.  Their reasoning was that both DMWW and the drainage districts are subdivisions of state government, and based on numerous decisions in Iowa courts, “one subdivision of state government cannot sue another…under these clauses.”  Additionally, the court found that “political subdivisions, as creatures of statute, cannot sue to challenge the constitutionality of state statutes.”  Consequently, they reasoned that the pollution of the water and the resulting need to remove that pollution did “not amount to a constitutional violation” under Iowa law.  The court also found that since the water in question was not private property, the takings claim was not valid.  A takings claim only applies to when the government takes private property.  What is more, the court added that regardless of its status as a public or private body, DMWW was not actually deprived of any property—they still had the ability to use the water.  Therefore, the Iowa Supreme Court answered all four state law questions in the drainage districts’ favor, and against DMWW. 

What’s next?

The Iowa Supreme Court found that the questions of state law favored the drainage districts, but that is not necessarily the end of this lawsuit.  Now that the questions of state law are answered, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, can decide the questions of federal law.  If any of the numerous motions for summary judgment are not granted to the drainage districts, a trial to decide the remaining questions is set for June 26, 2017.  The questions left for the district court to decide include a number of U.S. Constitutional issues. 

One of these issues is whether the drainage districts’ discharge of nitrates into the water constitutes a “taking” of DMWW’s private property for a public use under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.   Another issue is whether the drainage districts’ state-given immunity infringes upon DMWW’s constitutional rights of due process, equal protection, and just compensation.  An important federal law question that also remains to be decided is whether the drainage districts are “point sources” that require a permit to discharge pollutants under the CWA. 

 How will the outcome affect other states?

Either outcome in this lawsuit will have implications for the rest of the country.  For example, if the district court sides with DMWW on all of the questions, it could open the floodgates to potential lawsuits against drainage districts and other similar entities around the country for polluting water.  Municipal and other users of the water could assert an infringement of their constitutional rights, including taking without just compensation.  Furthermore, if drainage districts are found to be “point sources,” it could mean greater costs of permitting and cleanup for drainage districts and other state drainage entities.  Those costs and additional regulations could be passed onto farmers within the watershed.  As a result, farmers and water suppliers around the country will closely follow the district court’s decisions on the remaining questions in the case. 

All of the court documents and decisions concerning this lawsuit, as well as additional articles and blog posts on the topic can be found here.  Additional reading on the subject from the Des Moines Register can be found here and here.

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