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Agriculture’s victory over Des Moines Water Works

Iowa Supreme Court found all counts against drainage districts “legally insufficient."

Commentary

Approximately one year ago I described a powerful brief written by the Belin McCormick law firm in Des Moines, which argued the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) case was so weak that a “...serious question exists whether DMWW has standing to bring a citizen’s suit.’

This past Friday evening, March 17, the United States District Court in Iowa agreed -- the DMWW had no standing to bring its case against the County Board of supervisors who served as trustees for numerous drainage districts serving farmers.

DMWW is a municipal water authority which provides drinking water to Des Moines area customers. Drainage districts are organized to control water falling on the district property and are mainly a funding mechanism to pay for drainage district improvements. The Iowa Supreme Court recently addressed numerous common law counts filed against the drainage districts and found all counts “legally insufficient”.

DMWW claimed the last legal counts were based on federal law and the decision of the Iowa Supreme Court should have no impact on water claims. The drainage districts and farmers said the Iowa Supreme Court decision supported their view that DMWW lacks standing to even file the case.

What is “Injury-in-fact”?
When a plaintiff goes to court, he or she must ‘show standing’ -- or in plain English, he or she has suffered “injury-in-fact.” Second, a plaintiff must show “a causal relationship between the injury and the challenged conduct.” Finally, standing must show “that the injury likely will be redressed by a favorable decision.”

This last element, called redressability, means that it is “likely” as opposed to “speculative” that the injury will be “redressable” by a court. The Belin firm argued in its 44-page memorandum of law there was no possibility of seeking redress or damages against the drainage districts. In other words, it was argued that “…drainage districts have no power to redress DMWW’s alleged injuries, even if DMWW prevails on Count I [Clean Water Act] and/or Count II [Iowa Code Chapter 455 B].“

Both the Iowa Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court judge concluded that the drainage districts for the farmers only have power to build and maintain structures which are meant to control the flow of water through the drainage systems.  

I suggested it was unlikely the Iowa Supreme Court would overturn almost 100 years of established law protecting Iowa farmers and their drainage districts.

Clear and powerful message
The Court cited several Iowa cases which clearly say drainage districts have no other function or purpose than to build and maintain drainage facilities and to make farmland tillable and profitable. The District Court opinion is clear and powerful. “The drainage districts are creation of Iowa law. In light of the Iowa Supreme Court’s unambiguous description of the limited powers and duties of those [drainage] districts, I conclude that Counts I and II fail for the lack of Article III standing under the doctrine of redressability.”

In other words, DMWW had no ability to even bring a law suit against the drainage districts and farmers, and obtain any sort of relief.

Based on the 100 years precedent, DMWW had to know this conclusion was likely, and yet insisted on forcing the drainage districts and their farmers to expend substantial funds in defending themselves -- which in hindsight seems not to have been needed.

DMWW also argued that the Iowa legislatures’ grant of immunity to the drainage districts violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment as well as violating the Takings Clause of the 5th Amendment. In another stinging comment directed to DMWW, the Court suggested it should know it could not bring a 14th Amendment claim against the state because the DMWW itself is a public entity and not a private entity.

First year law students should be aware of the weakness of such an allegation. The other two constitutional issues were disposed of with little effort.

The larger Clean Water Act issues raised by DMWW were not addressed, and I suspect we will see other law suits brought against farmers and drainage districts in other states as a result.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Penton Agriculture.

Gary Baise, a principal at OFW Law, specializes in Clean Water Act (CWA), Clean Air Act (CAA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) litigation as well as agricultural corporate governance issues. He serves as general counsel for U.S. Grains Council, Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) and National Sorghum Producers (NSP). Gary was the first Chief of Staff to the first U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator. He owns a family farm in Jacksonville, Ill.

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