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A Sound Decision

February 7, 2017
by Dan Voigt , Emmetsburg News

It's been a little over a week since the Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling on an appeal of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun Counties and their rural drainage systems. The heart of the suit revolved around the levels of nitrates found in the waters of the Raccoon River, which the Des Moines Water Works draws water from for the capital city's drinking water.

When the suit was first field, the Des Moines Water Works claimed that it had to run equipment daily to remove excess levels of nitrates from the river waters to make it safe to drink. Because the Raccoon River starts in northwestern Iowa, in the Sac and ?Buena Vista County areas and runs through Calhoun county, the Des Moines Water Works concluded that the nitrates are put into the river upstream from Des Moines, courtesy of farm drainage runoff. Therefore, the rural counties needed to pay for the big city's expense.

After the lawsuit was filed, there was an immediate outcry from the rural counties of the state that have agricultural drainage; among them, Palo Alto County. Through membership in the Iowa Drainage District Association, the three defendant counties in the lawsuit sought assistance from the organization, which in turn reached out to its member counties for financial support in mounting a legal defense. Many counties contributed to the fund out of the old tradition of neighbors helping neighbors in our rural communities.

In the meantime, the lawyers did what lawyers do best - they researched laws and built their cases both for and against the suit.

Environmental studies were conducted, and ongoing research provided information on ways that nitrates can be reduced in agricultural drainage, through various methods such as grassways known as filter strips, settling basins and other methods. Many of these techniques had been developed through ongoing research on a similar issue, the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which lies off the mouth of the Mississippi River. High levels of nitrates and other contaminants in that region have affected marine life for over 20 years and states that border the river have been working for years to address that problem as well.

As the Supreme Court addressed the Water Works lawsuit, a couple of points of law came to the forefront of the court's deliberations, and helped to provide a basis for the court's decision. First was the fact that a governmental entity cannot sue another governmental entity, under the Code of Iowa, while a second main justification against the suit was the simple fact that drainage is exempt, by virtue of drainage law that dates back over 100 years.

While the Supreme Court addressed several questions presented in the suit, it did not make the lawsuit go away. In fact, following the ruling, the Des Moines Water Works Board announced that they would continue to pursue the litigation despite the Supreme Court opinion.

"Is there a winner in this decision? It's hard to say. On one hand, one would think the Water Works would respect the Supreme Court's notion that a governmental body can't sue another governmental body, but apparently, the big city doesn't understand such simplicity.

It appears that the lawsuit won't go away, and rural counties will have to face the additional expense of defending the taxpayers' right to do their job, which in most cases, is to raise the food that feeds the world. Without drainage, that ability is severely limited.

Let the big city chew on that...



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