Iowa Supreme Court hears arguments in water pollution case

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether to allow two groups to go to trial with a lawsuit claiming Iowa has allowed crop and hog farmers to pollute the Raccoon River, denying citizens safe water for drinking and recreation.

The case filed in March 2019 declares that every Iowan has a right to clean water under the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal concept that dates back to English common law and has been part of U.S. law since the nation's founding.

The lawsuit claims lawmakers and state officials have failed to protect Iowans’ right to clean water by permitting nearly unlimited expansion of hog farms and few restrictions on pollution from crop farms, allowing bacteria, nitrates and phosphorous from manure and fertilizer to pollute the water. That pollution, the lawsuit argues, violates citizens' right to clean water from part of the Raccoon River, a primary source of drinking water for about 500,000 central Iowa customers of Des Moines Water Works.

The river has occasionally exceeded federal safe drinking water nitrate limits for the past decade, and the water utility must run expensive treatment systems to maintain acceptable levels of nitrate and other pollutants.

The state, represented by Iowa Solicitor General Jeff Thompson, argued the case should be dismissed because the Iowa Constitution places the responsibility of balancing the interests of farmers and water quality in the hands of the legislature and executives. The courts shouldn't intervene in those policy considerations, Thompson said.

“Agriculture is who we are as a state historically, culturally and economically. The regulation of agriculture is one of the most important and also one of the most difficult challenges faced by this state," he said.

Lawyer Brent Newell argued for Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, which filed the lawsuit. He said the court should uphold an Iowa judge's ruling in September 2019 that denied the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit and concluded it should proceed to trial.

“The public's use of this river is being substantially impaired now. It's polluted severely," Newell said. “We believe that we have stated a claim for which the district court can grant relief.”

If it goes to trial, the lawsuit will ask the court to throw out the state's policy that allows crop farmers to voluntarily implement environmental practices to help constrain field runoff and order mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinement facilities.

Iowa is the nation’s leading pork producer, with 25 million pigs on farms, and the top corn producer, a crop which requires abundant nitrogen fertilizer to produce high yields.

A decision on whether the case will be allowed to go to trial will likely come in a few months.