An Injunction in the Des Moines Water Works Lawsuit Won’t Hurt Farmers, Here’s Why Not

James Meinert, MJLST Lead Managing Editor

Last spring, the public water utility for the Des Moines, Iowa metro area filed suit in federal court alleging that agricultural drainage districts are emitting nitrates to the Raccoon River in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The utility’s remedy under the citizen suit provision of the CWA would be an injunction; and in the alternative, the utility’s associated common law claims could yield injunctive relief and damages (The utility’s private nuisance claim in particular seems likely to survive pre-trial dispositive motions, if not win outright at trial, as Iowa Code § 657.2(4) makes it a nuisance to “render[] unwholesome . . . the water of any river . . . to the injury or prejudice of others.”). Most commentators have focused on the novel CWA claim, that nitrate pollution flowing from tile drain outlets is point source pollution and thus subject to NPDES permitting just like a factory outfall. If successful, the CWA claim would categorize nitrate pollution from tile drains as a third type of flow off agricultural fields that is separate from otherwise exempt “agricultural stormwater” and “return flows from irrigated agriculture” (33 U.S.C. § 1362(14)).

The utility has been criticized by the Governor of Iowa, State senators, and farming associations, for not collaborating with the upstream farming communities, and for not waiting to see if they State’s two year old nutrient reduction strategy will lead to lower pollution over time. Is this a real dichotomy—suing versus working collaboratively?

The CWA has never had a strong regulatory regime for nonpoint source pollution. Section 303 says that “States shall” complete a number of planning activities: first, decide what uses each water should have (wildlife habitat, recreation, drinking water, etc.); then set water quality standards protective of those uses; then maintain lists of waters impaired under these standards; and finally calculate total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) the impaired waters could receive and still be clean enough for their use (33 U.S.C. § 1313(d)). There is no actual implementation or regulatory requirement for nonpoint sources. After the TMDL, there are federal grants to identify best management practices, and more grants for parties who volunteer to implement the identified activities. These are in addition to grant money farmers could receive from USDA to implement similar practices through EQIP or CRP contracts, but all of the implementation measures are voluntary.

Iowa has largely completed the planning steps, the Raccoon River has TMDLs for nitrates, and specifically tailored best management practices for the watershed, but traditionally Iowa has not spent its federal grants directly at pollution on farm fields, but rather on broader projects like a K-12 state-wide education program to foster a “culture of conservation,” or creating wetlands areas upstream of lakes to mitigating silting and nutrient-based algae blooms.

There is an entire sector of Iowa’s economy surrounding the study and development of agricultural practices, however, there has been little governmental urgency in directing resources towards implementation of agricultural conservation practices for water quality improvement. In 2010, Iowa voters approved a constitutional amendment to create a 3/8ths of one percent state sales tax to fund water quality initiatives and to protect natural areas. However, the State legislature has yet to collect any revenue through the tax. Iowa even has its own grant funding program to pay farmers to implement water quality practices under the nutrient reduction strategy. But Governor Branstad has vetoed attempts by the legislature to fund those programs, last year vetoing the $22.4 million the Iowa house and Iowa senate agreed to appropriate for water quality initiatives.

In the world of Clean Water Act regulation of nonpoint source pollution, a lawsuit is the only way to get everyone to the table to get something done. In the 1980s and 1990s, most states completely ignored the impaired waters lists and TMDL requirements until citizens filed lawsuits in 35 states arguing progress was so slow that States and EPA had violated duties under the act. In general, courts held a duty was breeched only if the States and EPA truly did nothing, a low standard to meet, but nonetheless, EPA settled most of the suits and entered court-administered consent decrees to promulgate tens of thousands of TMDLs across the country. In the DMWW suit, the utility asks the court to “frame an injunction that permits sufficient flexibility for the Drainage Districts to comply with the injunction without undertaking an unreasonable burden.” Under such a request, the parties would be negotiating a binding timeline for farmers to take advantage of otherwise voluntary measures. If Governor Branstand doesn’t veto the State legislature’s appropriation for water quality grants this coming year farmers could implement best practices on the taxpayer’s dime, something Iowa voters asked for years ago. The utility could try for specific requirements like that all landowners physically abutting the Raccoon River make every effort to enroll in state and federal grant programs to conserve land and improve water quality. But whether the requirements are buffer strips funded by USDA Conservation Reserve Program contracts, or best practices from Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy, that’s for the utility and farmers to negotiate in settlement conference.