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Groups sue Iowa over water runoff

Suit alleges state of Iowa is failing to protect its waterways from farms.

Jacqui Fatka

March 27, 2019

3 Min Read
Groups sue Iowa over water runoff

Iowa’s river system is facing litigation again as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit against the state of Iowa over what the groups claim is a violation of its obligation to protect the Raccoon River for the use and benefit of all Iowans.

The Raccoon River is an entirely intrastate watershed that drains 3,625 square miles, or 2.3 million acres, in west-central Iowa. Approximately 73% of those acres are planted with corn and soybeans, while approximately half – 1.15 million acres – have tile drains.

The Raccoon River is the source of drinking water for some 500,000 Iowa residents. Des Moines (Iowa) Water Works (DMWW), the largest water utility in Iowa, has one of the most expensive nitrate removal systems in the world. DMWW filed a lawsuit in 2015 against upstream counties alleging that their failure to regulate tile drains led to excessive amounts of dangerous nitrates in the utility’s Raccoon River source water. However, a judge rejected those claims.

The latest lawsuit states that the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy -- the state's policy for nitrogen and phosphorus water pollution controls -- has failed to offer the necessary protection of the water source.

The lawsuit notes: “The most recent 'Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Progress Report' was released on March 7, 2019. The report acknowledges that adoption of the strategy’s agricultural best management practices was not making sufficient progress towards its nonpoint-source nutrient reduction goal. While annual progress continues in the implementation of these practices, early [Nutrient Reduction Strategy] efforts only scratch the surface of what is needed across the state to meet the nonpoint-source nutrient reduction. Progress has occurred, but not at the scale that would impact statewide water quality measures. Local water quality improvements may be realized in 16 the short term where higher densities of conservation practices are in use, but the ability to detect early trends in measured water quality will vary from case to case. Statewide improvements affected by conservation practices will require a much greater degree of implementation than has occurred so far.”

In a statement, Iowa agriculture secretary Mike Naig, who was listed in the lawsuit, said his office has not received a file stamped copy or been officially served, as required by law. “Once we’ve been served and had a chance to review its contents, the Attorney General’s office will respond on our behalf,” Naig said.

He added, “While we are disappointed to learn about this lawsuit, we remain committed to implementing the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. We’re focused on making measurable progress on soil conservation and water quality across the state.”

Brent Newell, food project attorney at Public Justice, said, “Farmers know what practices work for their farms, communities and the environment, but we are clearly seeing that voluntary compliance does not work in a system controlled by corporate agriculture. Iowans need a system that empowers Iowa’s farmers to be the solution and restores rural communities economically.”

This lawsuit comes as a disappointment to Iowa farmers, as it will be costly and cause scarce resources to be reallocated from current water quality projects without any guarantee of improving waters, the Iowa Corn Growers Assn. (ICGA) said in a statement. 

“Iowa farmers are aware of the role we play in our state’s quality of life; this includes the water we share. By implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we embrace the best science and rely on years of experience to collaborate in results that better our water,” stated ICGA president Curt Mether, a farmer from Logan, Iowa. “Farmers will continue to work together to achieve the best long-term solutions for our soil and water while feeding the world.”

“At a time farmers are struggling financially and also from historic flooding, this lawsuit is a low blow to farmers,” Mether added. “It will divert resources from implementing conservation practices and helping our farmers recover from the latest natural disaster.”

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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