Jenna Ladd | September 16, 2016
Five Iowa Supreme Court Justices heard arguments on Wednesday in a legal suit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against three northwest Iowa counties for the pollution of 500,000 residents’ drinking water.
A Des Moines Water Works attorney asked the court to reconsider the legal immunity that drainage districts have been granted for nearly a century and to determine whether the water utility could seek monetary damages. Removing nitrates that flowed into the Raccoon and Skunk rivers cost Water Works $1.5 million last year alone. The utility said that the water has exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 milligrams per liter several times in recent years.
Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said that monetary damages for past contamination and increased federal oversight of drainage districts are both important. As nitrate levels in waterways increased throughout the 1990’s, Des Moines Water Works built the largest ion exchange nitrate removal facility in the world, with a $4.1 million dollar price tag. The utility said that a larger facility will be necessary by 2020, claiming the project would cost up to $183.5 million dollars. Farming communities in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties are concerned that farmers will be responsible for payment should the damages be awarded. Typically, if county officials decide to lay new drainage tiles or repair old ones, farmers have footed the bill.
Michael Reck, a lawyer representing the three counties, presented several examples in which Iowa courts honored the legal immunity of drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works attorney John Lande said that this is the first time public health has been at stake in such court proceedings. He argued that drainage districts were established to protect the public health of Iowa communities. He said that they have repeatedly failed to do so when nitrate levels were found to be four times the EPA’s limit downstream.
Whether or not damages are awarded, the Iowa Legislature has been moved to consider water quality protection measures. A reallocation of tax money from public schools to water quality projects failed to pass last year, as did a 3/8-cent water quality sales tax bill. Some say that they are hopeful the sales tax proposal will be reintroduced this year. The policy would generate $150 million dollars a year for built water quality management projects.