Monday, January 30, 2017

Water utility can't sue Iowa counties for nitrate runoff; suit to invoke federal law remains alive

Raccoon River watershed, part of Des Moines R. watershed
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that the Des Moines Water Works can't sue the rural northwest counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to pay for cleanup costs for nitrate runoff that is blamed for contaminating the Raccoon River, which provides drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents served by the utility, Christina Grijalva reports for KCAU-TV in Sioux City, where a related federal case is set for trial June 28. The rural-urban battle has been going on for about two years.

Des Moines Water had "hoped to reverse nearly a century of legal precedent that's given the districts immunity from being sued for damages," Grant Rodgers and Donnelle Eller report for The Des Moines Register. "The utility argues the protection relieves the drainage districts of responsibility to limit farm runoff into streams and rivers. It also wants to force drainage districts to seek permits under the federal Clean Water Act. It's a move that would increase regulation for about 3,000 districts statewide, and indirectly farmers across the state and, possibly, the nation." That demand is in the federal lawsuit.

The state court's decision "was a relief to northern Iowa counties, potentially on the hook for the capital’s water-quality problems, and to Iowa farmers and ag groups, who are encouraged that the utility’s remaining claims could be dismissed," reports the Register. "Paying damages would have been 'an enormous burden that I don’t know we could have financially survived,' said Colin McCullough, a drainage district attorney for Sac County."

Experts and environmentalists say the suit could have national implications over who is responsible for water pollution that originates from cropland that is often hundreds of miles away.

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