Nutrient Runoff Case Delayed

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By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) -- The nutrient runoff lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works may not go to trial this summer as scheduled, according to an order handed down Monday by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa in Sioux City.

The federal lawsuit filed against drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, all of which are northwest of Des Moines, Iowa, and part of the Raccoon River watershed, was scheduled to go to trial starting Aug. 8, 2016. The lawsuit also names county supervisors.

"This case was reassigned to me on Feb. 17, 2016," Judge Leonard T. Strand said in an order. "At that time, I hoped it would be possible to keep the then-existing trial date of Aug. 8, 2016. As such, I entered a trial-setting order maintaining that date.

"Unfortunately, other scheduling demands now make it apparent that I will be unable to preside over a three-week trial starting Aug. 8. As such, trial is hereby continued."

The judge has given the plaintiffs until May 5 to file a response to a motion for summary judgment. The court has scheduled a status conference in the case to possibly set a new trial date, according to court documents.

If successful, it is believed the legal action could lead to regulating agriculture as a pollution point source in Iowa and perhaps across the country if legal fever spreads. It could require farmers to pay for expensive permits for normal farm practices, as well as restrict the use of fertilizer or other farm chemicals.

At the center of the issue is the extensive subsurface tile drainage that helped turn the Raccoon River watershed northwest of Des Moines into one of the most productive cropping and livestock areas in the country. The tiling also allowed farm nutrients to move downstream. The lawsuit specifically declares tile drainage pipes and ditches operated by the drainage districts as "point sources which transport a high concentration of nitrates contained in groundwater."

The Raccoon River drains 3,625 square miles, which is equal to 2.3 million acres, in west-central Iowa.

A motion for summary judgment is a request to dispose of a case without trial and is often filed when there is no dispute as to the facts of a case.

In this particular case, attorneys for the drainage districts say Des Moines Water Works General Manager Bill Stowe and the defendants are in agreement on a number of issues, centered on the power of Iowa drainage districts to regulate nutrient runoff and that the utility has no direct proof that the nutrient runoff came from the 10 drainage districts in question.

During a deposition of Stowe taken as part of the ongoing case, he agreed with defense attorneys that Iowa drainage districts do not have the power to require farmers and others to have permits for discharging nutrients into waters, according to court documents, because such discharges are exempt from federal law.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ToddNeeleyDTN

(AG/SK)