A federal judge recently dismissed the Des Moines Water Works case, holding water quality problems are for the legislature (not the court system) to fix. A water utility had sued three Iowa county water districts, claiming the districts allowed significant nitrates from agricultural operations to enter the water system. The water utility argued it would have to spend over $80 million to filter out the nitrates to provide safe drinking water. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in January that the utility could not recover financial damages from the water districts. The dismissal of this suit is good news for agriculture, because it would have been the first case of its kind to impose nitrate liability on regional water districts.
What's next? Most pundits in Iowa believe this ruling will shift attention to a pending bill in the Iowa legislature designed to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works and other independent utilities. The bill would move water utility control and assets to local city councils. The state's agricultural industry and government groups will likely focus on conservation practices farmers can implement to reduce runoff and nutrient losses, including cover crops, buffer strips, and terraces. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, for example, calls for voluntary conservation practices and encourages agronomic nutrient application rates. Many states have created these nutrient strategies centered on voluntary compliance by local agriculture.
The utility company has 30 days to appeal the federal court's decision. The CEO of Des Moines Water Works says it is reviewing its options.